Leon Morris/Redferns/Getty Images
Abbey Lincoln performs at the New Orleans Jazz Festival in 2002.
Abbey Lincoln performs at the New Orleans Jazz Festival in 2002. Leon Morris/Redferns/Getty Images
Abbey Lincoln, the legendary jazz singer who believed in singing as a political act, died Saturday in Manhattan. She was 80. An actress, artist and composer, Lincoln created music ranging from avant-garde civil-rights-era recordings to the equally powerful but more introspective work of her later years.
Her 1960 collaboration with jazz drummer Max Roach, We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite, put her voice smack in the middle of the soundtrack of the civil-rights movement. In "Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace," Lincoln literally screams her anger. But that's not how she started out.
Village Voice jazz critic Nat Hentoff supervised the recording of the Freedom Now Suite and watched Lincoln transform from a sultry nightclub singer into a more sophisticated artist. Hentoff says Lincoln was a sometimes self-deprecating woman with a ready, sardonic wit, and says her death is a huge loss to a jazz community that doesn't have musicians like her anymore.
"You hear who they are as they play. They're telling stories," he says. "As Lester Young used to say, everybody tells a story. So we've lost one of the few still here who was always telling a story."
Lincoln was born Anna Marie Wooldridge in Chicago on Aug. 6, 1930. The 10th of 12 children, she claimed the living-room piano as her own private space. After singing in the church choir and amateur contests, she moved to Los Angeles at 19 for a different kind of venue: nightclubs. At the urging of her manager, Lincoln worked her sex appeal as a club singer. But later, after meeting drummer Max Roach and becoming immersed in the struggles of black people around the world, she earned a reputation for being a warrior. She sometimes took on less serious roles, too.
"It always did the actresses in, because I was the one who was supposed to have this reputation as a freedom fighter ... and I got two movies," Lincoln told NPR's Roy Hurst in a 2003 interview.
One of those movies was 1968's For Love of Ivy, alongside actor Sidney Poitier, in which she plays an unconventional maid with a mind of her own. Lincoln told NPR that the film's producers thought she would play a more subdued role — she didn't.
Lincoln continued her maverick music career, writing songs and compositions with sharp imagery. Chicago jazz singer Maggie Brown collaborated with Lincoln on her 1999 album, Wholly Earth. Brown says Lincoln advised her to focus on the music and not to get bogged down in worries about agents and money.
"She [told me], 'Don't worry about that. Just sing,' " Brown says. "You know, just bring the art."
Brown, who performs a tribute to Lincoln called Maggie Sings Abbey, had known Lincoln since she was a child. She says Lincoln brought intensity to both her performances and her personal life, and says she was very secure in who she was.
"She was committed to her art," Brown says. "She seemed very clear of what her purpose was, what she was to do."
Lincoln once said that when people leave this Earth, they spread their wings of miracles in a blaze of light and disappear. Luckily, Lincoln's spirit lives on in her recordings.