Abbey Lincoln, an acclaimed jazz singer, songwriter and actress who evolved from a supper-club singer into a strong voice for civil rights, has died Saturday in a nursing home in New York. Although no cause of death was given, Evelyn Mason, her niece reported that Lincoln had been in failing health. She was 80.
Lincoln “was a really gifted person and a truly wonderful actress. She was the kind of person you expected to live forever,” . These are the words by Sidney Poitier reflecting on the death of Abbey Lincoln. She was gifted in so many ways. She was quite productive, and it was quite rewarding for those of us who heard her sing and watched her act.”
These are the words by Sidney Poitier reflecting on the death of Abbey Lincoln.
In reading Mr. Poitier’s comments, I too began to reflect on the remarkable Abbey Lincoln.
Born under the name Anna Marie Wooldridge on Aug. 6, 1930, in Chicago, Lincoln was the 10th of 12 children. The family soon moved to rural Michigan.
Moving to California in 1951 she performed in local clubs, and then spent two years singing in Honolulu before coming back to Los Angeles. The move back to the mainland resulted in the birth of Abbey Lincoln. Inspired by Westminster Abbey and Abraham Lincoln, songwriter Bob Russell, Anna Marie Wooldridge’s manager thought of the name.
Lincoln had a role in the 1956 film “The Girl Can’t Help It” in which she wore a dress once worn by Marilyn Monroe. The appearance, coupled with her first album, “Abbey Lincoln’s Affair: A Story of a Girl in Love,” gave her a glamorous image. That changed when she started working with jazz drummer Max Roach, whose music would reflect the coming civil rights struggle. They married in 1962.
“I started out being a sexy young thing in a Marilyn Monroe dress,” she told The Times in 2000, “And Max Roach freed me from that.”
That freedom exploded in the 1960 release “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite” a wordless, and sometimes screaming duet between Lincoln and Roach. Critics were divided on the landmark musical statement of the civil rights movement.
“We all paid a price, but it was important to say something,” she told the Wall Street Journal in 2007. “It still is.”
That freedom was futher seen in the movie roles that followed. Two of those movies were “Nothing But a Man” with Ivan Dixon in 1964 and “For Love of Ivy” in 1968, in which she starred with Sidney Poitier.
Although “Nothing But A Man” shared the plight of the black man, Lincoln’s performance showed you the burden of the black woman as she tries to support her black man during the Jim Crow era of the deep south.
This was the first time I would lay eyes on Abbey Lincoln. Giving meaning to the phrase less means more, Abbey’s performance was simple and to the point. This was also true in “For Love Of Ivy”.
As I digress here Both films are highly recommended, but “Nothing But A Man” should be required viewing for every black male on earth starting at the age of 13.
As I sat and watched this movie at the age of 17 in a hot Brooklyn Flatbush apartment in the summer of 72, I suddenly understood the behavior of black men who fathered children but did not stick around to raise them.
Through Lincoln’s performance I also understood that the black woman was carrying the weight of the world on her back. Daily she cared for the white families she worked for often in a domestic capacity, contending with their problems, then coming home to care and nurture her own children while enduring the the physical frustration of a black man who often had difficulty supporting his family emotionally and financially.
Today we call the physical frustration domestic violence.
Lincoln’s performance in “For Love Of Ivy” strongly reflects the liberation of the black woman from domestic work to self dependence. It shows the black woman realizing her self worth and the ability to make positive choices about her own journey through life without the help of whites, and an abusive man. It shows her selecting a mate on her own terms and not for financial support.
Getting back to Abbey, she and Roach divorced in 1970, and she returned to California to “cleanse her spirit,” she told The Times in 1993. She taught at what is now Cal State Northridge, did some television work and performed only occasionally.
Her career took off again in the late 1980s, with works including two 1987 albums paying tribute to Holiday. Living in New York, she moved to the Verve Music Group and had commercial and artistic success with “The World Is Falling Down” in 1990 and “You Gotta Pay the Band” in 1991, in which she performed with saxophone great Stan Getz. Her final new release was “Abbey Sings Abbey” in 2007.
Through her work as a performing artist, Abbey Lincoln has made an impact on generations to come.
“She opened up doors, not just in the sense of career possibilities but as empowerment to be myself when I sang,” singer Cassandra Wilson told the Wall Street Journal in 2007.
Lincoln is survived by brothers David and Kenneth Wooldridge and a sister, Juanita Baker.
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