(This is an expanded version of the obituary that ran in the magazine after Ms. Lincoln’s death.)
“I had never screamed before in my life,” Abbey Lincoln once told the Smithsonian, looking back on her experience recording “We Insist! Freedom Now” with Max Roach in 1960. Yet her screaming, praying, loving delivery on that record earned her the early reputation of being a culture-bearer for the era’s social revolution and civil rights movement.
After that, she never needed to scream to get a message across again – because when the world lost Lincoln, at the age of 80, on Aug. 14, her enduring poetry, music and honesty still conveyed a message of empowerment. She had forged her own path relentlessly, writing some of the most evocative lyrics of our time. And her “succinct, raw, in-your-face” delivery, as Dianne Reeves characterizes it, continues to thrive in a new generation of singers.
“Freedom Now” marked a transformative period in Lincoln’s life. Having completed stints as a nightclub singer and actress in “The Girl’s Gotta Have It,” with a few records under her belt, the 30-year-old singer (who changed her name from Anna Marie Wooldridge) found herself falling into an image she’d later incinerate — along with the sexy red dress she’d worn in the film.
“She was a very beautiful, young girl making her musical debut,” recalls Sonny Rollins, who played on her 1957 album, “That’s Him,” with Max Roach. But he admits that at the time, he thought of her as “an ingénue.” What he didn’t realize was that in the late ‘50s, she was already clawing out from under that title.
“My life was really becoming oppressive,” Lincoln said of that period, in an interview compiled by the NEA after she was named a Jazz Master in 2003. “I was trying to be seen as a serious performer. And there were many people making snide, ugly comments.”
Lincoln went on to join Roach, whom she married in 1962, on a more than a dozen recordings through the ‘60s. But “Straight Up,” was her last as a leader for a decade. Though she’d certainly earned that “serious” artist rep by the end of ‘60s, she took a brief sabbatical from music following her split with Roach. She returned in 1973 with her first album of original music (“People in Me”), which in some ways marked the start of a new and lasting era of her artistry.
“She didn’t rest on ‘Freedom Now,’” says Terence Blanchard. “She was constantly moving forward, constantly pushing the envelope to find new things.”
Whether she was recording with Hank Jones, Charlie Haden and Stan Getz, or Archie Shepp or paying tribute to key influence, Billie Holliday, Lincoln’s limber phrasing, direct lyricism and fierce emotion continually proved her acumen not only as an artist, but as a storyteller, too.
“She used her artistic voice to really paint colors and make you see things within,” says Reeves. “It would rip you apart. It could be something soft — and then she could slap you in the face.”
That kind of range is particularly evident on 1991’s “The World is Falling Down.” Lincoln’s lyrics for Haden’s “First Song,” tell an innocent love story. A few tracks later, “I’ve Got Thunder (And It Rings)” takes issue with the notion that a woman can’t be both feminine and opinionated.
“Once you see an injustice … it stays with you the rest of your life,” says Haden, whose friendship with Lincoln deepened over a long period of shared social circles and albums. “During Reagan’s tenure and under Bush, senior, she was disgusted. She was a very deep person who had reverence for the preciousness of life.”
Reeves once tried to produce a concert that would acknowledge Lincoln’s vast contributions to music. “She shut it down,” Reeves recalls with a laugh. “Abbey said, ‘Tributes are for people who are not here, and I’m not dead. I respect that. She was really just someone who lived her truth, and that takes a lot of guts.”
Lincoln’s remarkable self-awareness and her ability to “be vulnerable enough on the bandstand to experience what’s deep in your heart and your soul,” as Blanchard put it, is also part of her legacy. “Just by being who she was, Abbey made me believe it’s ok for me to be myself,” he says. “When you talked to her, the person you spoke to was the person you saw onstage.”
If anyone understood that about Abbey Lincoln, it was Chicago-based vocalist Maggie Brown, whose father Oscar Brown, Jr. wrote the “Freedom Now” lyrics. When she was still a child, Brown knew Lincoln through her family, and she became an important mentor. Brown later recorded two duets on Lincoln’s “Wholly Earth” in 1999, and was tapped to perform Lincoln’s music in a Chicago tribute concert this past August.
“Abbey created herself, musically,” Brown says. “She blossomed into this strong writer who could compose the inspirations she was sent that speak to us all with that soul-stirring emotion.”
Before Lincoln died in Manhattan in August, Brown visited her nursing home, where they revisited their old duet habit. “She was a lot weaker,” Brown remembers, “but she was still singing.”