Saturday, August 14, 2010

R.I.P. Abbey Lincoln

The great jazz singer Abbey Lincoln passed away today at the age of 80. She was truly one of the greats of the music. I always heard traces of Billie Holiday in her voice, but she had a truly unique sound and was instantly recognizable. In my view, she sometimes in her later career had one of those performance styles that younger singers miss; a certain way of being more conversational than operatic. (Think Shirley Horn or Freddie Cole, even Grady Tate ; sometimes they are more speaking than singing.) This is not to imply that she didn't have pipes; One of my favorite CDs is "When There Is Love", a duo with pianist Hank Jones, and if you listen her rendition of " I Should Care", you hear her gorgeous tone soaring with a subtle vibrato.

Of course, her association (musically and matrimonially) with drummer Max Roach is considered historically important, especially if you check out the album "We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite". (You can hear most of it on Youtube.) It's a pretty powerful fusion of music and social protest, and Lincoln is pivotal to the suite. Her singing is deadly accurate and overwhelmingly emotional. On "Tears For Johannesburg" Lincoln's vocal virtuosity rivals Sarah Vaughn.

Abbey Lincoln was also a fine and respected composer: Her bluesy "The Music Is The Magic" is practically a standard-I've performed it with a number of singers. "Bird Alone" and "Throw It Away" are also great tunes of Lincoln's. And if you didn't know, she had an acting career: You might remember her from her brief role as Bleek Gilliam's mother in Spike Lee's "Mo' Better Blues." I didn't realize she was such a beauty in her early career. She appears in a film from 1956 called "The Girl Can't Help It", looking extremely hot! Check out the youtube clip; you'll see her in the famous dress which Marilyn Monroe wore in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." Well, in this case, I prefer Abbey!

I only saw Lincoln perform once in the late 90's at the old Iridium in New York. My friend Aaron Walker, who was her drummer at the time, got me in on the guest list. I believe Steve Kirby was on bass and Marc Carey was on piano. I remember being enthralled. Lincoln was the kind of performer that young singers should be hoping to emulate as they mature; She made it seem effortless, which is what a great performance should always seem. I'm sorry I never got to work with her: I think I would have learned a lot.

Feel free to post your comments or remembrances.

Finally, I wanted to add this wonderful quote from Steve Kirby:

"Abbey Lincoln was a mystic. She was a sorceress. When she ended a song with a cadenza she channeled miles as clear as the mid-day sun. Her soul lies in a smoldering cauldron of artistic passion. I can only imagine how she saw the world. I'm certain, however, that it sat in the palm of her hand. She was one of the giants."


  1. Beautifully stated, George. For me, it was all about Abbey's extraordinary storytelling ability (much like Shirley Horn, as you mention above).


  2. Oh my, Ms Abbey, such a story teller with that gorgeous voice. Very sad. Wonderful legacy of work. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  3. A beautiful tribute. Well spoken.

    May she rest in peace
    and i will always be learning how to listen.

  4. Awesome work -- well said. I've got a lot of listening to do all over again after her passing.

  5. You rarely find such brilliant performers in music anymore. Her artistry transcended jazz, and the world is that much diminished at the loss of such a powerful spirit.

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  7. You rarely acquisition such ablaze performers in music anymore. Her ability transcended jazz, and the apple is that abundant beneath at the accident of such a able spirit.

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