WICN Artist of the Month, June 2023: Abbey Lincoln
Written by Doug Hall on June 1, 2023
There are many Black female jazz vocalists held in special regard for their commitment to civil rights and activism, including the support expressed through their songs and lyrics that directly address racism. Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit, Lena Horne’s Stormy Weather, and numerous songs by Nina Simone, most notably Mississippi Goddam, Backlash Blues, Four Women and To Be Young, Gifted and Black, are well known social and political statements in song. Abbey Lincoln, perhaps overshadowed by these legends, deserves similar attention and credit, having committed early on in her singing to carry a message, directly addressing and confronting the issue of race and racism in the United States, particularly during the tumultuous ‘60s and early ‘70s.
Lincoln’s distinctive style, phrasing, and tone was personal and heartfelt, affecting other contemporary vocalists as well as a later generation, including Cassandra Wilson, Cécile McLorin Salvant, Kendra Shank, Fay Victor, and Christine Correa. She impacted other jazz vocalists, not only by her standalone style but also for the integrity of the message. Cassandra Wilson expressed her thoughts about Lincoln in an NPR interview thusly: “She had a profound influence on me, not only as a singer and composer but also as a role model. I learned a lot about taking a different path from Abbey, investing your lyrics with what your life is about in the moment.”
Lincoln credits the recordings of Billie Holiday (refer to her tribute release Abbey Sings Billie, Vol. 1 & 2, Enja, 1987), Sarah Vaughan, and Dinah Washington with teaching her how to “sing with conviction.” Lincoln’s New York Times obituary offered this descriptive analysis: “Her singing style was unique, a combined result of bold projection and expressive restraint. Because of her ability to inhabit the emotional dimensions of a song, she was often likened to Billie Holiday, her chief influence. But Ms. Lincoln had a deeper register and a darker tone, and her way with phrasing was more declarative.”
Lincoln began her recording career in 1956, releasing Abbey Lincoln’s Affair: A Story of a Girl in Love. The following year, she moved to New York City and worked at the Village Vanguard, which at that time was an intimate supper club, perfect for aspiring artists and well suited for her emotional performance style.
She would step into the intense circle of jazz musicians in the location hotbed of 52nd Street in New York City during the mid-‘50s and ‘60s. Most importantly, she would meet and develop a partnership artistically and romantically with legendary Bebop-architect jazz drummer Max Roach. Roach would then make a very significant contribution, politically and musically–as well as being personally vocal and active in the emerging civil rights movement along with Lincoln, who would become his wife. His 1960 album We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite had Lincoln singing politically charged lyrics by Oscar Brown Jr. and launched her career as an individual artist, unafraid of confronting major issues of segregation, unequal educational access, and violence against participants in the civil rights movement. A New York Times article reviewing her career stated, “Now hailed as an early masterwork of the civil rights movement, the album (We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite) radicalized Ms. Lincoln’s reputation. One movement had her moaning in sorrow, and then hollering and shrieking in anguish – a stark evocation of struggle.”
Her own 1961 album, Straight Ahead, was guided by a similar ideal and received critical acclaim as well as achieving commercial success. Lincoln was also backed by superb sidemen, including saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, Eric Dolphy on flute and alto, trumpeter Booker Little, pianist Mal Waldron, and drummer Max Roach. This release, as expressed by AllMusic critic Scott Yanow, was “a testament to the credibility of her very honest music and talents.” In this groundbreaking artistic approach, she directly explores race, class and the Black Struggle with a range of compositions, culminating with Retribution. A 2021 Boston Review article, entitled The Songs of Struggle, refers to Lincoln’s firm statement, “The title track was itself a clever double entendre: the ‘straight ahead’ path in jazz, as in politics, was not moving fast enough. Most provocatively, the closing refrain of the album, from the song Retribution, capped the dissonant sound and militant politics of Lincoln’s work: ‘Let the retribution / match the contribution,’ she sang.”
Lincoln would then leave the commercial spotlight, stopping her recording career for more than a decade, releasing no new albums during the remaining ‘60s and into the ‘70s.
Her return to New York in the 1980s developed into a significantly successful second stage of her career. Lincoln would begin performing again and attracting critical attention. In the mid ‘80s, she connected with PolyGram France (a record label that evolved to Verve Music Group) and record producer and executive Jean-Phillippe Allard, leading to the development of a seminal album, The World Is Falling Down (1990). This release brought Lincoln back to the forefront of artistic attention and a renewed audience, with a crafted set of songs that were substantive, powerful, and accessible. Along with other enthusiastic reviews, Entertainment Weekly gave the album resounding praise, “With the release of her mesmerizing new album, The World Is Falling Down, Abbey Lincoln, now 60 years old, may finally earn recognition as the great singer she is — possibly the most commanding jazz vocalist now at work.”
This rebirth of muse, inspiration, and artistic creation would include eight more albums, while also enlisting top-shelf jazz talent including saxophonist Stan Getz, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, trumpeter Clark Terry, and alto-saxophonist Jackie McLean, tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, trombonist J.J. Johnson, and for occasional choral support, The Staple Singers and the Noel Singers. She contributed compositions of standout original material, particularly Throw It Away and When I’m Called Home, along with striking renditions of popular songbook standards like Bob Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man. An accomplished and astounding output of recordings, under Verve during this period, include You Gotta Pay the Band (1991), When There is Love (1992), Devil’s Got Your Tongue (1993), A Turtle’s Dream (1994), Who Used to Dance (1996), You and I (1997), Wholly Earth (1999) and Over the Years (2000).
In 2007, with her final recording, Abbey Sings Abbey, at nearly 77 years of age, Lincoln anchors and revitalizes some of her most well-known songs, plus a powerful and personal interpretation of Thelonious Monk’s Blue Monk. This release is seen again as a high-water mark of her vocal virtuosity, yet undiminished at a time of retirement for many other jazz singers. The All About Jazz review from 2007 speaks to her vocal presence. “Her raspy alto with its unhurried bends and shifts probes the nether reaches of the music in the manner of her artistic forebear Billie Holiday, but the album’s feel is definitely contemporary. Lincoln’s band matches the singer in wit and skill: Larry Campbell (guitars and mandolin), Scott Colley (bass), Shawn Pelton (drums), Gil Goldstein (accordion) and Dave Eggar (cello).”
Lincoln used the stage as a platform to sing about the struggles that Black Americans faced.
She was fearless in addressing social inequality, of her generation particularly, through public activism and an exceptionally gifted voice and direct lyrics of protest. In a 1989 performance review, Peter Watrous wrote in the New York Times, “Her utter individuality and intensely passionate delivery can leave an audience breathless with the tension of real drama. A slight, curling phrase is laden with significance, and the tone of her voice can signify hidden welts of emotion.” In addition, Lincoln’s forthright personality and the integrity of her words are well remembered and respected by jazz artists and critics alike. In a telling quote, Lincoln cuts to the heart of her message, “I, Abbey Lincoln, sing about what is most important to me, and what is most important to me is being free of the shackles that chain me in every walk of life that I live. If this were not so, I would still be a supper club singer.”