Abbey Lincoln: Straight Ahead

Knowing her music is to know a lot about Abbey Lincoln, as it is with the deepest artists. Because so much of their whole feeling-thoughtful-combined selves are used to create their art: the sensitive lyricism; the blade-sharp insight very often touched with a droll but wistful humor; the emotional revelation that is one constant dimension of her singing—and very evident in the woman herself.

She lives in upper Manhattan, as they say, where the more expansive cultural motif of high-urban sophistication begins to turn, like the enjambment of a poetic line, imperceptibly toward the contrasting otherness of where the Blues People stay.

Abbey’s spacious apartment is clearly an introduction to herself: comfortable, self-proclaiming, engraved with not so much décor as confirmation of her own aesthetic particularity and presence. Evocative paintings, including one of her mother and another, just parallel, of her father; they also hold some of Abbey’s brothers and sisters; Abbey’s in both.

Classic photographs, which themselves are archival gems narrating some aspect of the world she has moved through, the many giants and epiphanies she has experienced. Like one incredibly riveting photo of young Billy Eckstine with Bird, Diz and Lucky Thompson. Stunning drawings and posters and photos of Abbey hang on the walls. All combine to make a visual biography. Still, at 70, a striking beauty.

“I came to California when I was around 20. My brother Alex brought me out there with him. I had been practicing, singing, but it didn’t sound like much. When I got there I was Anna Marie Wooldrige. But the manager wanted me to have a French name and I already had one. But when I began singing at the Moulin Rouge, they changed it to Gaby. And I got some publicity; I was in some of the magazines. Ebony used to like me a lot, before I went social.” She says this with that wink in her laugh, cool and signifying.

“I was meeting people like Jose Ferrer and his wife, then, Rosemary Clooney. And Mitch Miller, they introduced me to Bob Russell, really a brilliant lyricist. He wrote lyrics for ‘Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me,’ ‘Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.’ The classic Ellington songs. It was Russell named me Abbey Lincoln. He thought I should be linked up to my own history. He was very up-front about his own. He used to tell me, ‘Jews made the world,’ and talk about Marx, Freud and Jesus Christ.”

Russell also functioned as Abbey’s first manager along with Steve Roland. “They sent me on the road. I went to Honolulu and worked with a group called the Rampart Streeters. They played the music; a drummer named Blinky Allen—he used to blink his eyes when he played. They were playing the music, but there was too much vice and stuff going on; the place was wide open. People thought they could do anything they wanted to. It seems like it always gets like that just before they take your country over. A lot of people got busted finally. That’s when they used to call me, ‘That square broad that works at the Brown Derby.’”

In her neophyte days, Abbey says: “They wanted to make me a glamour type when I first got to Hollywood. I got in this movie, The Girl Can’t Help It [with Jayne Mansfield; Little Richard sang the title song]. I sang something called ‘Spread the Word.’ No, nothing happened with that. They weren’t interested in what I was singing. They were just interested in me wearing that Marilyn Monroe dress. The one she wore in Gentleman Prefer Blondes. [Max] Roach saved me from all that.

“But before that I’d wear this dress, it was orange chiffon and my breasts would be bouncing around. It actually had cotton in the bra. That’s all they were interested in: me wearing Marilyn Monroe’s dress. They were creating some rep for me as some breasty sexy woman. But I wasn’t never really that. I can’t stand some man looking at me and just thinking about sex.”

Talking about how and what she learned and from whom: “I really didn’t know much about the music then. But I began to meet people. I met Duke [Ellington] coming from Hawaii. He used to stay in a suite in one of the two black hotels in L.A., the Watkins. That’s when it was all segregated. So when Duke was in town, he always stayed at the Watkins.

“So I decided I wanted to sing with Duke. He hadn’t asked for a singer. But I just went up to see him, and hit on him, telling him I wanted to sing with the band. Duke didn’t say much, he just began to undress and walk toward the bedroom. Then he rolled the bed down, and I walked out of there.” Abbey is having much fun running this down. “I never told that to any writers before. I guess he was letting me know, up front, so I got right out of there.

“I met a lot of people in L.A. and Honolulu. I met Billie Holiday, Cozy Cole, Louis Armstrong. I never got close to Billie. Actually, I was afraid of her. I mean I respected her so much. I wasn’t going to walk up to her like some of these singers do to me and start talking about myself, give me their latest record.” So it is that Abbey describes her relationship with Billie as “kind of standoffish.”

“Louis was a wonderful man. He didn’t look at a woman’s behind, he looked right into your eyes and he was a great friend. Dinah Washington and Sassy liked me. Actually, they treated me as a mascot, ’cause I was still learning the music. I already had a career, as a glamour queen. I didn’t have to be there”—she means not only Honolulu or L.A.—“but I had to be there. I had to be in the music.”

Anna Marie Wooldrige, one of 12 children, born in Chicago, parents coming up from St. Louis. Abbey’s conversation is punctuated with frequent references to her parents and the values they gave her and her brothers and sisters. “My father built our house. He built two houses, one in Chicago and the other in Calvin’s Center, near Kalamazoo, Michigan, when we moved there. Calvin’s Center was one of the stops on the Underground Railroad. A lot of those folks there were light-skinned with straight hair. The runaway slaves married the whites and Indians there. So they didn’t socialize with us much.

“My father actually midwifed my last six brothers and sisters. He knew how to do things, with his hands. He was a handyman.”

When I ask what was the most enduring value her family gave her, she says, without hesitation, except for the laughter that accompanies her answer: “Learn how to do something! To go and do something—before we got underprivileged or ghettoized!

“I grew up on a farm. My folks never told me about no storks. Never gave us no names to worship. If my mother had put a white man’s picture on the wall…” She is remembering how even after her parents separated, her mother provided a continuity to the secular clarity of the values in the house: mainly, self-respect and self-reliance.

“We had an upright piano in that house. When I was four going on five I would sit in the front room, we called it. If I could sing a tune I could finally play it. No one ever told me to ‘Stop playing,’ it was getting on their nerves or anything. No one told me to ‘Play’ either.”

It is this openness and directness, shaped with the direction of self-knowledge, that still animates Abbey’s telling of her youth and family. “We slept, all 12 of us, on the floor, on pallets. Yet they produced children who became something. My brother Robert is a judge. My brother Alexander was the first black tool-and-die maker in California. A movie star.” She is smiling, impishly. “My youngest brother is a VIP at Motorola. There’s about 150 of us now—children, grandchildren.”

The first album I did was with Benny Carter, Bob Russell, Marty Paitch, Jack Montrose, The Story of a Girl in Love in 1956. I had met Max in 1954, when I got back from Honolulu,” says Abbey. “Friends had told him about me, that I was a singer he needed to hear. He was working with Clifford Brown at Hermosa Beach. I remember how beautiful his hands were. He encouraged me. I met Clifford that one time.

“After Clifford was killed I came back to New York. I had fired everybody, all my managers and agents. Because by now I had a manager who owned 50% of me. I overheard Bob Russell telling some people, ‘You don’t understand, I own this woman.’ I fired everybody, agents, manager. I’ve not had a manager since. I’ve got business associates. But I manage myself!”

One aspect of Abbey’s narrative is a consistent and genuine gratitude for the role Max Roach played in her musical development as a singer and as a conscious artist. “Influences? Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington—I had a lot of influences. But Max Roach was the main influence. I was still wearing that Marilyn Monroe dress, and one time in Canada, Max says, ‘Abbey, I don’t like that dress.’ I thought about it then put it in the incinerator so I wouldn’t wear it again.

“Max and the great musicians he introduced me to knew everything about theory. He introduced me to the cycle of fifths in B-flat. What I love about this music is the promise of individuality. Variations on a theme. If you can get past the idea of jazz,” Abbey hisses the word into a chuckle. The dismissal of the term as a loose straightjacket of commerce and cultural patronization is one she shares with Roach, who told me he got it from Duke Ellington.

About the music, Abbey turns directly philosophical. “It’s the human spirit,” she calls. “That’s why those athletes can run like that. That’s the only thing. Everyone has it. But in the music, the Africans practiced it. On this level, that’s why they came and got us. You think somebody’s gonna cross two oceans to get somebody that can’t do nothing?

“But when I met Max I understood what I was involved in. He asked me, ‘Abbey, why do you sing everything legato? This is a rhythm music. On the beat!’ He’d say that even on the stage.

“How would I have gotten a chance to meet these great musicians—Rollins, Dorham? Max asked me, ‘Abbey, would you like to make a jazz album?’ I told him I wasn’t a jazz singer. He said, ‘You’re black aren’t you?’ The Riverside dates came out of that [That’s Him, Abbey Is Blue].”

With another smiling irony, Abbey remembers, “That’s when the jealousy started.” And to my interrogator’s incredulousness, she adds, “Uh huh, people were jealous. I wasn’t supposed to be taken seriously,” her tone stiffening. “I would get this from singers. They’d be talking to Max, ‘Why don’t you let Abbey go make some money, she’s not a singer!’

“But Max and the other great musicians he introduced me to carried me through all that. When I was getting ready to record ‘Blue Monk’ with my lyrics, Max called Monk and asked him to come and check the rehearsal. When I finished Monk came over and whispered in my ear, ‘Don’t be so perfect’. I didn’t know what he was talking about. When I asked Max, he said, ‘Make a mistake!’

“Monk started me to seeing myself as a composer. He told these people once, ‘Abbey Lincoln is not only a great singer and a great actress, but a great composer.’ And I hadn’t composed anything then. But I would. The first song I composed and wrote the lyrics was ‘People in Me’ [on 1973’s People in Me, Inner City].”

She certainly would; her compositions and lyrics are one aspect of the unique musical artist that Abbey Lincoln is. Since her complete embrace of the most advanced musical forms, the poetic impact of the lyrics—hers and others—is an indelible power that keeps the whole song, voice, words, arrangement and composition spinning in your head. Always from the stance of singer as musician, instrument, poet, actress, philosopher.

Still, for all her talent, Abbey has had to take her share of knocks for her highly personal creativity and her highly public aesthetic, cultural and social-political self-portraits. Big for-instances are the sizzling records she made with Max Roach, whom she married in 1962. The daunting aesthetic departure of the great We Insist! Freedom Now Suite (Candid, 1960) and It’s Time (Impulse!, 1962) were clearly inspired by the whole context of the real world in which everyone lives—even though it pays to claim it doesn’t even exist. The “screaming” that one anonymous ignoramus laid at Abbey’s feet is, in fact, if said sad person was babbling about “Tryptich: Prayer, Protest, Peace,” indeed the center piece of Abbey doing exactly what Mao asked artists to do: create works that are “aesthetically powerful and politically revolutionary,” where the vocal narrative reaches the force of unstoppable rising collective human passion.

It is a common topic of conversation among the various diggers how Abbey and Max had to pay for their commitment to “The Movement.” The very same crocodiles who might skin and grin in their presence would advance almost a boycott of these two internationally acclaimed artists, as payback for them daring to use their art in the service of democracy and the people. But self-determination is anathema to the corpses, even if packaged only as an aesthetic and located exclusively in the world of art.

Coming out of the expressive discussion on what things have shaped her, Abbey volunteered a somewhat stunning raison d’être, I guess booted by the mention of the Motherland. “I’m an African woman. Really. I’m not a monogamist,” she offers, seeking to clear up whatever questions she thought she could acknowledge vibing in my knot, that she felt, perhaps, would not be asked but needed to be laid out.

“People don’t understand. Max was not a womanizer. He wasn’t running around. But I don’t want to have to answer where I was last night! I don’t want him to divorce his first wife if he can’t have me. I don’t want my sister to be without. I would never do that again.” A high-spangled laugh, “But at my age, I’m not gonna do any of that anymore, anyway.

“But the whole thing—I never had any rights [to Max]. What rights have you? Unless you can kill him. The African women could do that!” She pauses to reflect, however deeply, “What was wrong with Roach and me was the approach to marriage.” And with that I withdraw before the water creeps over my head. “The only way I survive is to keep running my mouth. That’s how I keep from being wiped out, to keep expressing myself!”

On her way to Los Angeles to perform at the Masonic Hall and the Jazz Bakery, we are discussing the various trends and camps she is checking, bouncing them around for verification. “Best thing I ever did for myself is practice the arts.” She confirms with delight the wisdom of her own choices: “I was a singer, a painter, actress, a playwright, a composer. I wrote a thesis on Africa and Egypt. I don’t want to do an autobiography because of the ugly spirit in this place. They take your stuff and twist it.

“And I’m tired of them talking about ‘women in the music’, like it’s new. Women always been in this music. But the men have been at the front of it. The men have a hard time keeping a standard that individual. If the work is to be seen it has to be original. Otherwise you can kick his booty butt off the stage.

“I haven’t changed, I’m just better at expressing myself. When I listen to the early things. I write songs about my life. It’s not an unhappy life. Because I run my mouth. You know. Express myself: Straight ahead!” She says it like some say “Later!” Smiling, her conversational tone glittering briefly into the first lines of one of her classics: “Straight ahead the road keeps winding…”

Originally published in January/February 2001

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