by Charles Gans
NEW YORK (AP)—Abbey Lincoln, a jazz singer and songwriter known for her phrasing, emotion and uncompromising style, died Saturday in New York at age 80.
|“AMAZING GENIUS”—In this Sept. 17, 2005 photo, jazz singer Abbey Lincoln performs during Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Higher Ground Hurricane Relief Benefit Concert in New York.
She had been declining in health for the past year. Her death was confirmed by friend and filmmaker Carol Friedman, who has been working on a documentary on Lincoln’s life.
Lincoln made records and acted in films in the 1950s and ’60s, then saw her career surge again in the 1990s when she found new voice as a songwriter.
Over her long career, Lincoln acted with Sidney Poitier and collaborated in music with the drummer Max Roach, whom she married in 1962 and later divorced.
In later years, she had chart-topping albums with “You Gotta Pay the Band,” which she recorded with Stan Getz, and “Devil’s Got Your Tongue,” in which she rebuked some rappers, comics and filmmakers for profiting from the denigration of Black culture.
As a young woman, Lincoln made a splash not only because of her voice, but her beauty. Early album covers featured her in slinky dresses, and she appeared in a Jayne Mansfield movie wearing the dress worn by Marilyn Monroe in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”
But after falling under Roach’s influence, Lincoln turned her back on that image, casting herself instead as a civil rights advocate, dressing in African-inspired clothing and hairstyles and making music with a political tone.
Her 1960 collaboration with Roach and Oscar Brown Jr., “We Insist! (Freedom Now Suite),” was a testament against racism.
Explaining her image makeover in 1993, Lincoln told The Associated Press, “This dress was more important than I was. People in the audience were looking at my exposed breasts and the shape of my body, and it didn’t have nothing to do with the music.
“…It wasn’t a dream of mine to be a star, so Max came along at the right time to help save me from myself. Otherwise, I would have become an alcoholic and unhappy.”
Born Anna Marie Wooldridge in 1930, Lincoln was the daughter of a handyman and grew up with 11 brothers and sisters in rural Calvin Center, Mich. She discovered music early, teaching herself piano and singing in music and school.
Lincoln worked as a maid as a teenager, but continued to sing, and eventually worked her way on to the nightclub circuit in Honolulu and then played supper clubs in Los Angeles in the early 1950s, performing under the name Gaby Wooldridge, and then Gabby Lee. Her manager and songwriter eventually came up with the stage name Abbey Lincoln.
Her work with Roach began in 1957 with the album “That’s Him.”
In the 1960s, she had several film roles, starring in the independent film “Nothing But a Man,” a story about a Black railroad worker in the South in love with a preacher’s daughter, and then opposite Poitier in “For Love of Ivy” in 1968.
Lincoln’s career fell quiet in the 1970s and ’80s, after her marriage to Roach ended. She recorded on small independent labels, but she found new fame and acclaim when she signed with Verve Records/ France and released “The World Is Falling Down,” in 1990, an album that featured such jazz stars as pianist Hank Jones and trumpeter Clark Terry.
She released nine more albums for Verve, the last, “Abbey Sings Abbey,” which featured reinterpretations of her own compositions, in 2007. Lincoln also acted again for the first time in decades, with a brief role in the 1990 Spike Lee film “Mo’ Better Blues.”
In 2003, the National Endowment for the Arts recognized her with its Jazz Masters Award, the nation’s highest jazz honor.
“I’ve done what I please, told people to go bug off and exercised my independence,” Lincoln told the AP in 1993.
Friedman said the world had lost “an amazing genius.”
“There are gorgeous women, there are spirited women, there are genius women—Abbey Lincoln was all of that,” she said. “You don’t find an artist that embodies this kind of level of physical beauty and cerebral magnificence in one package.”