Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

you won’t forget me

Abbey Lincoln: Sorceress

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Abbey Lincoln is one of those singers who makes an impression on you. It’s not just her throaty voice or her elegant musicianship, but a certain quality—like every song is an intensely personal revelation, an invitation to meet her where she lives. Like Nina Simone and Billie Holiday before her, you hear that disarming combination of guts and vulnerability in Lincoln. It gives you the sense that she’s put herself out there, and uses her music to report back to the rest of us.

Abbey Lincoln was born Anna Marie Wooldridge in Chicago in 1930—her stage name was an inspired melding of Westminster Abbey and Abraham Lincoln. She made several recordings in the 1950s, starting with Abbey Lincoln’s Affair: A Story of a Girl in Love. She appears on Max Roach’s 1960 recording, We Insist! Freedom Now Suite—Roach was both a musical collaborator and her husband from 1962 to 1970, a period which shows her deep commitment to the civil rights movement. The 1960s also saw her on screen in several films, including For the Love of Ivy with Sidney Poitier (1966), a role that gained her a Golden Globe nomination. She began writing her own material in the early 1970s, and has enjoyed a long and steady career. Among her best recordings: Abbey Sings Billie (1987), You Gotta Pay the Band (1991), A Turtle’s Dream (1994), Over the Years (2000), and Abbey Sings Abbey (2007).

Steve Kirby toured with Abbey Lincoln’s band in 1998, and counts that experience as one of the most musically enriching of his career. “She’s a mystic,” he says, “a sorceress. When she ended a song with a cadenza, she channeled Miles as clear as the midday sun.”

Both intense and temperamental, she was not easy to work with, but she was always an object lesson in being fully engaged. Steve remembers one day in Lisbon when the band had left a rehearsal. “Abbey was particularly perturbed,” Steve says, “so the band was disciplined. She paced along regally, and we fell in behind her. Then she stopped sharply, and we all had to stop. An African woman stepped out of a doorway and crossed to another building. This woman was stunning—mocha-colored skin, flowing azure robes, jewelry, perfect carriage. Abbey turned to us and said, ‘Now that was beautiful!’ Then we walked on.”

“She was always mixing some kind of brew in her head,” Steve says. “She would take a moment to appreciate what was around her, then go back into it. On that occasion, she was instructing us about the true nature of beauty.”

Lincoln died August 14, 2010, at the age of 80. Her later work shows an artist continuing to explore the mystery of life and love with a deepening wisdom. As she said to an interviewer on NPR, “when everything is finished in a world, the people go to look for what the artists leave. It’s the only thing we have really in this world—an ability to express ourselves and say I was here.”

No doubt about it, Abbey Lincoln was here.

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