Standing proud for freedom

August 23, 2010

Martin Smith, author of John Coltrane: Jazz, Racism and Resistance, celebrates the life of Abbey Lincoln, who went from supper-club singer to jazz artist and activist.

JAZZ SINGER Abbey Lincoln once said, "I have a lot to say, and I don't like the world that I found myself in, that I was created to be in. I was brought here, but I don't like this 'here.' It's the pits! If I wasn't able to access myself through the work, I would have dropped dead a long time ago. I couldn't have stood it here."

In many ways, the brief statement encapsulates her life. Born Anna Marie Wooldridge in Chicago in 1930, Abbey was raised on a farm in Michigan and began singing by the age of 14 in local bands. By the early 1950s, she had turned professional and became a major star on the supper-club circuit. She was packaged as a sex object--a Black Marilyn Monroe. Her repertoire included sexually suggestive popular songs. She even appeared as a bikini-clad "centerfold" in Jet magazine in 1954.

In an interview, she explained why she had decided to stop being portrayed as a sex object in 1956:

It was the early days of the civil rights movement, and we were all asking the same questions. But they were questions that glamour girls weren't supposed to ask. As I toured the country, I noticed Black people everywhere were living in slums, abject poverty. I wanted to know why.

Abbey Lincoln
Abbey Lincoln

She changed her name to Abbey Lincoln (a homage to Abraham Lincoln) and switched from singing cabaret songs, dedicating her musical life to jazz singing. For Abbey, jazz promised her a measure of artistic freedom and an opportunity to express her emotions and political ideals.

Building on the singing style of Billie Holiday, Abbey began to develop her own unique voice. She recorded three albums for Riverside Records--That's Him (1957), It's Magic (1958) and Abbey Is Blue (1959).

It was the third album that reflected her new seriousness and her turn from a "sepia sex symbol" to assertive performer. Contained on that album are three race-conscious tracks written by Oscar Brown Jr. ("Afro Blue," "Brother, Where Are You?" and "Long As You Are Living"). "Lonely House" was written by communist Kurt Weill and the Black poet Langston Hughes, and another by Weill, "Lost in the Stars," is a condemnation of apartheid South Africa. One of the most tender and majestic songs on the album is "Come Sunday," written by Duke Ellington for his proto-civil rights suite Black, Brown and Beige.

Another major influence on her life was the drummer Max Roach. It was Max who convinced her to wear hair in a natural and get rid of the cocktail dresses. In the liner notes to her 1961 album Straight Ahead, she wrote that Roach helped her discover "how wonderful it is to be a Black woman."

IN EARLY 1960, Oscar Brown started collaborating with Max Roach on a long choral work, to be performed four years later on the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. But the project was overtaken by an upsurge in the civil rights movement.

On February 1, 1960, four young men organized the first sit-in against segregation at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. Within a week, students were holding sit-ins in 54 cities up and down the South.

Inspired by this wave of sit-ins, Roach and Brown rushed out the album We Insist! Freedom Now Suite (1960). The album cover is a photograph from the Greensboro sit-in.

The overt political message of the album demanded among other things, a new vocal style. Abbey delivered the goods. On the track "Driva Man," she is almost spitting out the words--Brown described Abbey's singing as a "howl of anger against racism and injustice."

Her real contribution to the jazz canon is on the track "Triptych (Prayer/Protest/Peace)." No words are sung, yet she pushes her voice to the sort of instrumental limits previously developed by saxophonists like John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman.

We Insist! Freedom Now Suite is a pioneering album both musically and politically. Abbey followed that up with her own solo album Straight Ahead (1961), and she also sung on Roach's albums Percussion Bittersweet (1961) and the much-underrated It's Time (1962). By now, she was using her voice like an instrument.

More and more, Abbey and Max used their music to support political causes. They performed benefit concerts for Malcolm X, CORE and the NAACP. Abbey also formed an organization called the Cultural Association for Women of African Heritage. She shocked the music press when she described herself as a Black nationalist.

For much of the rest of the 1960s, Abbey found it difficult to record--some record companies refused to hire her, claiming she was "too political." She attempted to make a new career in film. She starred in Nothing But a Man (1964) and, alongside Sidney Poitier, in For Love of Ivy (1968).

In 1973, Abbey signed to the legendary Verve record label. Verve packaged her as the last of the great female jazz singers. Abbey recorded very little throughout the 1970s and '80s. But she returned to form with the recordings Abbey Sings Billie: Volume 1 and 2 (1987) and A Turtle's Dream (1994).

Over the last 20 years, she became an iconic figure in jazz. Her intonation changed with her passing years, and she developed a deeper, richer vocal style. She had a profound influence on a new generation of female singers like Cassandra Wilson. Abbey Lincoln died on August 14, 2010.

Every writer has rightly praised her contribution to jazz. But that wasn't always the case. Throughout the 1960s, the critics were divided over Abbey. Some attacked her for bringing politics into her music. Time magazine accused her of reverse racism, claiming that her emergence signaled a "regrettable kind of reverse racism known as Crow Jim." The jazz critic Ira Gitler accused Lincoln of using her identity to "exploit a career."

"We all paid a price, but it was important to say something," Abbey told the Wall Street Journal in 2007. "It still is."

The fact is that Abbey paid the price more than many--but to the end championed the struggle against racism and oppression.

Further Reading

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