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Abbey Lincoln, the legendary jazz vocalist who believed that singing is a political act, died yesterday at the age of 80, in Manhattan. An actress, artist and composer, Lincoln's music ranged from avant-garde, civil rights-era recordings to the equally powerful but more introspective recordings of her later years.

NPR's Allison Keyes has this remembrance.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ABBEY LINCOLN (Late Jazz Vocalist): (Singing) Freedom, say freedom. Throw those shackles and chains away...

ALLISON KEYES: Abbey Lincoln's 1960 collaboration with jazz drummer Max Roach, "We Insist: The Freedom Now Suite," put her deep, strong voice smack in the middle of the soundtrack of the movement for civil rights and social change. In one song from that album, "Prayer/Protest/Peace," Lincoln literally screams her anger.

(Soundbite of song, "Prayer/Protest/Peace")

Ms. LINCOLN: (Screaming)

KEYES: But that's not how Lincoln started out. Village Voice jazz critic Nat Hentoff supervised the recording of that album, and says he watched her metamorphosis from a sultry club singer into a more sophisticated artist.

Mr. NAT HENTOFF (Jazz Critic, Village Voice): I saw Abbey change, as she later put it to me, as who I really am.

KEYES: Hentoff says it was magnificent to continue to watch Lincoln find herself as an artist. He also says the sometimes self-deprecating woman with the ruddy, sardonic wit, is a huge loss.

Mr. HENTOFF: You hear who they are as they play; they're telling stories. And so we have lost one of the few still here who was always telling a story.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. LINCOLN: (Singing) Then with disillusion deep in your eyes...

KEYES: Lincoln's ability to play with the rhythm, phrasing and vibe of the lyrics made her unique.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. LINCOLN: (Singing) ...to know why...

KEYES: She was born Anna Marie Wooldridge in Chicago, August 6th of 1930. The 10th of 12 children, Lincoln claims the living room piano was her private space. After church choirs and an amateur contest, she moved to Los Angeles at 19 to sing in nightclubs. At first, thanks to a manager, Lincoln did the sexy-club-singer thing. But later, after meeting drummer Max Roach and becoming immersed in the struggles of black people around the world, Lincoln got a reputation for being what she called a warrior.

In a 1968 movie, "For the Love of Ivy," she plays an unconventional maid with a mind of her own.

(Soundbite of movie, "For the Love of Ivy")

Ms. LINCOLN: (as Ivy Moore) What more you want?

Mr. SIDNEY POITIER (Actor): (as Jack Parks) I don't want to get married.

Ms. LINCOLN: (as Ivy Moore) Did I say you did?

It always did the actresses in because I was the one who was supposed to have this reputation as a freedom fighter and everything, and I got two movies.

KEYES: Lincoln played opposite Sidney Poitier, and told NPR the film's producers thought she would be more subdued. She wasn't.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. LINCOLN: (Singing) Oh, the holy earth in your arms, seen from way up high...

KEYES: Lincoln continued her maverick career, writing music with images so sharp, it sometimes seemed they cut you.

Chicago jazz singer Maggie Brown collaborated with Lincoln on the 1999 album "Holy Earth," and says Lincoln was an intense performer and person who was very secure in who she was.

Ms. MAGGIE BROWN (Jazz Singer): She was committed to her art. She seemed very clear of what her purpose was, what she was to do.

KEYES: And Brown says Lincoln didn't care what value others put on her work.

Ms. BROWN: She was really - as the young people say - doing her.

KEYES: Lincoln once said when people leave this earth, they spread their wings of miracles in a blaze of light, and disappear. But luckily, her spirit lives on in her recordings.

Allison Keyes, NPR News.

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