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Abbey Lincoln, Noted Jazz Singer, Dies

Unique song stylist, songwriter and actress was 80 years old

Abbey Lincoln

Abbey Lincoln, a jazz singer who also earned some acclaim as a film actress, died on Saturday, August 14 at her home in New York City. She was 80. Her death was announced by her brother David Wooldridge. Ms. Lincoln had been ailing for some time and had made few if any public appearances in recent years.

Lincoln, though perhaps best known for collaboration in 1960 with Oscar Brown, Jr. and drummer Max Roach for the We Insist! The Freedom Now Suite for Candid Records, also had a successful career as an actress (most notably opposite Sidney Poitier in For Love of Ivy), but she found film work less fulfilling than singing for audiences. And after meeting Roach in 1957, she became increasingly politicized as well as passionate about the power of music as a means of self-expression. She went on to marry Roach and after the split up in 1970, she had a brief retirement from public life.

Within a few years, she had largely given up acting and returned to singing and writing full-time. Lincoln went on to create a modern body of work that is unlike any other singer in jazz. Although she retained her strong political beliefs and commitment to the Civil Rights movement, the songs she sang and wrote had an increasingly personal and emotional focus. Her vocal style, though clearly influenced by Billie Holiday, was entirely unique: her languid phrasing and deep voice gave her material a very real sense of drama. In addition, Lincoln wrote many of her songs, particularly later in her career during the ’90s, when she released a series of critically-acclaimed albums for Verve, including one with Stan Getz, whom she often credited as reviving her career simply by virtue of association. Songs such as the powerfully emotive “Throw It Away” and the pensive “The World Is Falling Down,” infused her philosophical bent with a sense of pathos. She also covered Bob Dylan and other modern songwriters, investing any material with her own unique sound and world view. Her final Verve album, Abbey Sings Abbey, was released in 2007 and featured a dozen new treatments of her own songs.

Born Anna Marie Wooldridge in Chicago in 1930, Lincoln went through a succession of names, until the late ’50s at the beginning of her show business career, when she got some professional direction from Bob Russell, a song lyricist who became her manager. As she told JT back in 2003, “My manager named me after Abraham Lincoln. He said to me, ‘Since Abraham Lincoln didn’t free the slaves, maybe you can handle it,’ and I’ve been Abbey Lincoln ever since.” The “Abbey” was borrowed from Westminster Abbey.

In a candid interview done for JT in 2001 by fellow civil rights activist Amiri Baraka, Lincoln said, “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!”

Nat Hentoff, who worked with LIncoln and Roach on Freedom Now Suite and knew both personally told JT: “Abbey never stopped growing. Knowing and marrying Max Roach taught her, she told me, ‘To be more of myself.’ And as the years went on, having been a fierce opponent of Jim Crow, she later became a universalist. I once did a BBC profile of her and I ended with : ‘Abbey had an integrity that could bite your head off.’ She also, as her singing showed, was an enveloping romantic.”

There have been several excellent obituaries written about Ms. Lincoln including those by Nate Chinen in the New York Times and by Matt Schudel in the Washington Post.

Ms. Lincoln is survived by two brothers and a sister. The family has requested that donations in Ms. Lincoln’s honor be made to the Jazz Foundation of America. There will be no formal funeral. She will be cremated and the JFA is working to put together the Celebration of Life/Memorial, which they hope will be sometime in mid-September.

Originally Published