Today’s Jazz Figure is Abbey Lincoln.
If Abbey Lincoln was overwhelmed by the responsibility of being proclaimed “the last of the jazz singers”, she never let it show. As her great contemporaries and principal influences among the classic female jazz vocalists fell away – with Billie Holiday the first to go, in 1959, and Betty Carter the last, in 1998 – Lincoln steadfastly maintained her dignified, almost solemn, focus; her tart, deftly timed Holiday-like inflections, and her commitment to songs that dug deeper into life’s meanings than the usual lost-love exhalations.
And, like Ella Fitzgerald, who all her life took to a stage as if she were surprised to find anyone had come to see her, Lincoln became the opposite of a celebrated jazz diva. In some of her London performances during the 1990s, she would sit quietly beside the piano, tugging at her clothes, like someone who had wandered into the action by accident. Lincoln, who has died aged 80, began performing and recording around 1957, when Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington and Carmen McRae were all in their prime, and Holiday was still at work, though the latter’s voice was by then an instrument on which some raucous years had left an audible mark.
Lincoln was born Anna Marie Wooldridge in Chicago, the 10th of 12 children, but raised on a farm in Michigan. She loved performing as a small child, and listened to music constantly – later recalling hearing Holiday and Coleman Hawkins on a hand-cranked Victrola gramophone. Anna Marie moved with her mother to Kalamazoo, Michigan, when she was 14, and began to sing with local bands. But by the early 50s she had left the district and begun singing professionally in California (at the Moulin Rouge in Los Angeles) and in Honolulu, Hawaii. She adopted other stage-names, including Gaby Lee, before settling on Abbey Lincoln in 1956, and shortly afterwards made her first recording with the saxophonist Benny Carter’s band.
Though she made a debut recording as a leader in the mid-1950s (Affair … a Story of a Girl in Love, for Liberty Records), Lincoln was primarily a club singer, with a distinctive though still unformed sound at this time, but a restless curiosity and intelligence made her gravitate toward the company of some of the most progressive jazz musicians of the period – including the pianists Thelonious Monk and Mal Waldron, and the drummer Max Roach.
Roach, one of the most powerful influences on the rhythmic thinking of the bebop pioneers of a decade before, introduced Lincoln to the producer Orrin Keepnews at Riverside Records in 1957. Her first release was That’s Him! – a session displaying the maturing talents of both a powerful musical force and a strong character, and featuring a pedigree bebop lineup including the trumpeter Kenny Dorham, the saxophonist Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis’s piano/bass combination of Wynton Kelly and Paul Chambers, and Roach. Though only in her 20s she was already giving the conventional mannerisms of jazz standard-singers ironic twists. She was later to declare that Roach’s arrival in her life was the moment at which she found her way as a jazz artist, but these early recordings suggest that her individuality had been developing over a longer period.
She was also beginning to write her own material and starting to find work as an actor. Other late-50s recording sessions included It’s Magic and Abbey Is Blue, with the latter featuring a startling rendition of the John Coltrane anthem Afro-Blue. In autumn 1960, Lincoln participated in the recording of one of the most celebrated jazz contributions to a wider political and social context, Roach’s We Insist! Freedom Now Suite. An ambitious splicing of work-song rhythms, the authoritative tenor sax of Hawkins counterbalancing Booker Little’s mercurial bop trumpet playing, multi-percussion ensemble sections and Lincoln’s sometimes raging vocals, Freedom Now became a milestone in jazz history. The following year, Lincoln recorded Straight Ahead, with Hawkins, Little and Roach from the Freedom Now lineup, plus the multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy among other guests.
Lincoln’s explicit emotionalism and liberties with pitching and intonation sometimes seemed to push her intentions and execution to the verge of separation – contemporary acquaintances including Monk and Charles Mingus were also expanding her ideas and technical ambitions – but she sounded nonetheless like an artist inhabiting a musical world increasingly her own, particularly on such tracks as the boldly vocalised Blue Monk, which Monk himself endorsed.
In 1962, Lincoln married Roach, recorded less (she was writing and acting more, and becoming involved in civil rights campaigning) and was devoting considerable energy to film acting by the end of the decade – she played opposite Ivan Dixon in Nothing But a Man (1964) and alongside Sidney Poitier and Beau Bridges in For Love of Ivy (1968)