Going to a jazz show is usually about hearing this piano player or that saxophonist, but attending a performance by vocalist Abbey Lincoln was about performing a pilgrimage: It was about the confirmation of shared truths and a glimpse of the potential of those ideas. She died Saturday at age 80 in New York.
Lincoln could make large concert halls seem intimate, and she made small jazz clubs feel like a living room. At her best, she held her audience rapt; there was a bright flame that burned inside her, and if you paid close enough attention, she would share it.
Abbey Lincoln found her inner flame early in life, and it burned brightly until the end. She was born Anna Marie Wooldridge in Chicago on August 6, 1930, the 10th of 12 children, and grew up in rural Michigan. Her pursuit of a show business career initially led her to the West Coast in the early 1950s, where she met Billie Holiday, whose plaintive style became a big influence, and Louis Armstrong. At the suggestion of her manager, she changed her name to Abbey Lincoln, which fused Westminster Abbey and Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln’s first recordings depicted her as a glamorous ingénue, and she acted in films that underscored that identity. She appeared in the Jayne Mansfield movie The Girl Can’t Help It. Her first recording, Affair … a Story of a Girl in Love (Liberty) intensified the sexy image; on the cover she wore a sexy dress once worn by Marilyn Monroe. On her second recording, That’s Him (Riverside), which was released in 1957, she began to change her image. She worked with drummer Max Roach and saxophonist Sonny Rollins. She married Roach in 1962, and by that time, they had already produced one of the most searing and profound jazz recordings ever made: We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite (Candid). The recording was released in 1960 and depicted a lunch counter sit-in on the cover. The music was deep and rich, highlighted by Lincoln’s vocals. Her commanding alto provides a clarion call to resist oppression on some songs, and on others, her wordless guttural moans and anguished cries depict the inhumanity of slavery and other atrocities.