Remembering A Jazz Legend

Abbey Lincoln, the acclaimed jazz singer, songwriter and civil rights activist, died Saturday at the age of 80. Maggie Brown, a singer, educator and family friend of Ms. Lincoln, remembers the legendary musician, her talents and her influence.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Onto a very different subject. American music has lost two very different but groundbreaking artists in recent days. And we'd like to take a few minutes to honor each of them.

First, Abbey Lincoln, the acclaimed jazz singer, songwriter, actress and voice for civil rights. She died this weekend at the age of 80. Her song such as "Holy Earth" made her one of the most revered voices in American song.

(Soundbite of song, "Holy Earth")

Ms. ABBEY LINCOLN (Jazz Vocalist): (Singing) Oh, (unintelligible) 'cause the whole wide world is round. Round and round and round. Yeah, the whole wide world round.

MARTIN: Abbey Lincoln's career shined especially in the late 1950s through the 1960s. She stepped away for a while, but made her way back to the limelight. She was frequently compared to one of her biggest influences, Billie Holliday and also made a name for herself because she could write songs. She built a career as an actress and singer in the late 1950s and then stepped away during the '70s. And years later returned to prominence as a singer praised for her songwriting abilities.

We're honored to have with us from Chicago, Maggie Brown, a vocal artist and educator who recorded two songs with Ms. Lincoln and was also a family friend and she will perform an already planned tribute to Abbey Lincoln. That's at Chicago Jazz Festival in just a couple of weeks. Thank you so much for joining us and we're so sorry for your loss.

Ms. MAGGIE BROWN (Vocal Artist and Educator): Yeah, thank you for having me on. And I appreciate the sympathy. It's our loss in terms of no more of those great compositions. But it's been my intention for, you know, the last few years, really, to draw more attention to the great compositions she's written.

MARTIN: Tell me about her composition, what was her particular gift as a songwriter and as a song stylist?

Ms. BROWN: I think expressing her take on life in a way that resonates with others, resonates certainly deeply with me. And most people that I sing songs like "Holy Earth" and "Throw It Away" and certain tunes, I already had as part of my repertoire, "Caged Bird," those three particularly.

But in recent months, to expose to the things like "Should've Been" and "Down Here Below," people are wiped out because at some time or another, we all have felt these waves, you know. And she simply puts it, yet eloquently, you know, expresses it.

I think that's one of the things and just and to watch her. She really would just simply state it without frills. But it went so deep into my heart.

MARTIN: Can I play a little bit? You mentioned "Caged Bird." Can I play a little bit of...

Ms. BROWN: Oh, I'd love that.

MARTIN: All right. Here it is.

(Soundbite of song, "Caged Bird")

Ms. LINCOLN: (Singing) La, la, la, la, la, la. The bird who lived in cages never spread their wings. They sit with ruffled feathers on tiny swings.

MARTIN: Well, that was pretty great. Right?

Ms. BROWN: Speculate the birdseed and wile away the day and tuck their heads in feathers of a colorful array. I know why the caged bird sings a sweet and soulful song. I know why the caged bird sings when everything seems wrong. Birds were made to fly away and birds were made to sing. And, you know, that's true of many of us in life. We feel a little caged in and unable to spread our wings and unable to really flaunt our colors. And that song was that was a version from earlier days.

And she loved that song because she revisited it many times, including the time I sang in duet with her. And if I'm not mistaken, on "Abbey Sings Abbey," which would've been her last recording, I think she, you know revisited it again. She had favorites, too.

MARTIN: Did she ever have any advice for you? And if you don't mind my mentioning, you are your father was the great Oscar Brown, Jr. But did Abbey Lincoln ever give you any advice, any coaching?

Ms. BROWN: I don't mind at all mentioning Dad. And it's because of his connection with Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln that I'm connected. And, yes, her oftentimes - I said to another interviewer that sometimes she wouldn't necessarily give me the answer I wanted. She brought me out to New York to record and subsequently perform with her. I'd often ask, you know, I don't have management or representation and agents. And I just wondered, could you, you know, turn me onto that? Can you help me with and she said, don't worry about that. Don't worry about that. Sing. Bring the music. Write the song. Don't worry about that, you know.

MARTIN: Okay.

Ms. BROWN: Because I guess that was not her focus - who was listening, who was representing, who was watching. But, you know, she was at a place in her life, which was a different place than where I was. She was certainly giving me a hand just by putting me on with her on her label. That brings you to the attention of the industry and that sort of thing.

So she had helped me greatly. But then when I wanted to, you know, further inquire, her thing was, you know, bring the music. Write songs that are about you that are your expression. Certainly always encouraged that.

MARTIN: All right. Maggie Brown. She's performing the work of Abbey Lincoln on Labor Day weekend at the Chicago Jazz Festival. And of course she's a renowned vocal artist and educator in her own right.

Maggie Brown, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. BROWN: A pleasure to be on the show with you. Thank you.

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