Jazz Profiles from NPR
Abbey Lincoln
Produced by Sally Placksin

Abbey Lincoln  

Few singers have the emotional depth and versatility of Abbey Lincoln. With a voice capable of evoking the joys and pains of life, she has carved a niche as a singer, songwriter, and storyteller for over 40 years. Today, she's a living jazz legend, still striving for new creative, self-expression.

Listen to producer Jean-Philippe Allard, trombonist Julian Priester, and drummer Max Roach describe Abbey's artistry

Born Anna Marie Wooldridge on August 6, 1930 in Chicago, Illinois, Abbey grew up in rural Michigan on a large farm with her eleven siblings. The family had a piano, and Abbey developed an interest in music at an early age and soon started singing in school and church choirs.

Listen to Abbey recall her childhood in Michigan

As Lincoln's talent matured, she began learning to express the emotions behind the lyrics. She credits the recordings of Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and Dinah Washington with teaching her how to sing with conviction.

Listen to Abbey talk about learning to be more expressive

To escape the harsh Michigan winters, Abbey moved to California. At age 22, she spent a year in Honolulu, singing at a nightclub under the name Gaby Lee. When she moved back to California, she met lyricist Bob Russell, who became her manager and renamed her Abbey Lincoln.

Listen to Abbey talk about Bob Russell

After several years in the West, Abbey left for Chicago. While her singing career was beginning to build, she landed a role singing in the film The Girl Can't Help It, wearing a dress once worn by Marilyn Monroe. But the glamorous life wasn't sitting well with Abbey, and she fired Russel and moved on.

Listen to Abbey reflect on her early glamorous days

In 1956, Abbey recorded her first album, Abbey Lincoln's Affair: A Story of a Girl in Love. The following year, she moved to New York City and worked at the Village Vanguard, which at that time was an intimate supper club, perfect for aspiring artists.

Listen to Abbey recall her first performances in New York City

Max Roach  

While performing at the Village Vanguard, Abbey met drummer, composer, and bebop innovator Max Roach (left), who she would later marry. It was Roach who introduced her to New York City's jazz elite. He also played an important role on her development as a socio-political artist and activist.

Listen to Abbey and singer Oscar Brown, Jr. talk her relationship with Max Roach

Abbey and Roach began collaborating quiet frequently during the end of the 1950s and throughout the 1960s. During this time, the Civil Rights movement was on the rise, and they, along with Charles Mingus, Oscar Brown, Jr., John Coltrane, and other jazz musicians, were right in the thick of it.

Listen to Priester and Lincoln reflect on their involvement with the Civil Rights movement

Lincoln, Roach, Brown and others performed at benefits and fund raising concerts for the NAACP, CORE, and other Civil Rights organizations. In 1960, they recorded Roach's masterpiece, We Insist! Freedom Now Suite.

Listen to Roach, Lincoln, and writer Nat Hentoff talk about "Tryptich," which featured Abbey screaming

When everything is finished in a world, the people go to look for what the artists leave. It's the only thing that we have really in this world -- is an ability to express ourselves and say, "I was here."

-- Abbey Lincoln  

After recording We Insist: Freedom Now Suite, Abbey teamed with Hentoff to record, Straight Ahead. The album featured Mal Waldron, who was the last pianist to work with Abbey's idol Billie Holiday before her death.

Listen to Abbey reflect on Billie Holiday

Straight Ahead also featured for songs with original lyrics written by Lincoln. One of them, "In the Red," addressed the economical injustices many blacks felt in America. A critic, who reviewed them album, labeled Abbey a "professional Negro." She and others wrote letters to the editor of the writer's publication.

Listen to Lincoln recall the response of her letter to the editor

In the mid-1960s, Abbey starred in two more films, Nothing But a Man and For the Love of Ivy. At the end of the decade, she and Roach had divorced; Abbey moved back to California and immersed herself into art. Even though she was experiencing some financial hardship during that time, singer Miriam Makeba offered her the chance to visit Africa.

Listen to Abbey recall her trip to Africa and its effect on her world perspective

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Abbey recorded on small independent labels such as Inner City and Enja. Her career got a major boost in 1989 when French producer Jean-Philippe Allard invited her to record for Verve Records/France.

Listen to Allard and Abbey recall their first meeting

When The World Is Falling Down was released in 1990, the record propelled Lincoln back to stardom. It featured luminaries such as alto saxophonist Jackie McLean, pianist Hank Jones, and trumpeter Clark Terry. Since then, Abbey has made a string of stellar, philosophical CDs for Verve that continue to bring her newfound critical and commercial success.

Listen to Abbey reflect on her life and art


View the Abbey Lincoln show playlist


Browse the NPR Jazz Web Feature on Abbey Lincoln

Read the NPR Jazz Review of Abbey Lincoln's 2000 CD, Over The Years.


  • Verve Records: Abbey Lincoln Web Page