By Deardra Shuler
Africa was imprinted within the soul of Abbey Lincoln. Sometimes you might see her moving with a catlike grace across the stage, other times as still as a Sphinx. Always wired to the earth rhythm so deep it went to the very roots of Africa and came out through the swirl of her hair and the recesses of her soul. Her voice entwined with the lyrics moving the melody and forming a rhythm that rose and fell to compliment her heartbeat and the strings of the bass. Her body unconsciously swaying to a beat that lived within her. Her husky vocal instrument swelled and filled the air around her with her magic and secret world. A world that lay within. Lincoln was unique, passionate and full of pride for her culture. She was so simple she appeared complex. Always original, beautiful and seeking to have a voice, Abbey Lincoln was very much in tune with her music and humanness. An African Queen on a foreign soil enriching it with the very essence of her Africanness. Lioness. Beingness.
Abbey Lincoln went under several monikers, each symbolizing a part of her experience, a time in her life wherein she sought to identify with the moment. Born Anna Marie Woldridge in the Morgan Park section of Chicago in 1930. She was the 10th of 12 children comprised of 6 girls and 6 boys. Her parents Evelyn and Alexander Woldridge encouraged her art or at least left her alone to pursue it when she started playing the piano at age 4. As she matured, Lincoln began playing piano in her church Sunday school. She also sang in the choir of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Lincoln once said while being interviewed by Like It Is TV producer Gil Noble that she was a soloist most of her life. I am a singer. Part of my being a singer came from learning how to hear the music. The singer is an instrument, commented Abbey. Fortunately, my ears have developed so I don't depend on what is on paper. As a singer, you can either read music or hear it. Both help, said Abbey who became a professional singer at age 19. I discovered the stage in high school. Having grown up in the country in Michigan, I wasn't exposed to many things so had no idea what I wanted to do in life or what I wanted to be. I never saw myself early on doing the things I later came to do. The singing and the work has taken me to many places. Its been magic reflected the introspective performer, poet, songwriter, model, actress and civil rights activist.
When Abbey began singing she met other musicians who helped her get work in night clubs. She started off singing the songs of the greats like Sarah Vaughn, Lena Horne, Dinah Washington and others. But there was something within Abbey that stirred her to reach for more; not in the monetary sense but as a bid to express her humanness. Abbey sang songs that had meaning. That reflected the society around her and promoted her inner voice and spirituality. When I was introduced to jazz music, it gave me a sense of sociability. It was via that sound I met awareness, said Lincoln who also gained social awareness through her association with drummer Max Roach whom she married in 1962 and later divorced in 1970.
I don't think you can create music unless you know who you are and where you are. Music is a culture and way of life, explained the jazz singer. A lot of things opened for me when I met the music via Max Roach. Max introduced me to Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins. These were aware people who were cognizant of the social climate around them. I listened and then began to think. I started thinking for myself. It's a funny world we live in. I think as a black people we often talk about what is wrong with this world. However, we don't really know what we want in this world. I notice that people seem to want what others have. They become jealous and envious. This disappoints me. This type of behavior says to me that my people think so little of themselves they want what another has instead of taking time to reflect on our African spirit. We are better than that, remarked the gifted, pensive, and civic minded singer. Personally, I am tired of living in hand-me-down houses, wearing hand-me-down clothes and living within a hand-me-down culture. Especially since it was African people who built the apex in terms of culture. We must remember that our ancestors gave us a lot. The very reason I sing and dance is because my ancestors sang and danced four thousand years ago. This is as much a part of me as the color of my eyes, continued Abbey who saw culture as a way of life, formulated and thought out in terms of the land we came from and which remains as we continue to forge ahead as a black race in America.
Lincoln felt that America with its multi-cultures should act as a peacekeeping force, embracing America's many cultures rather than imposing control over them. The fact that Africa was steadily becoming self-governing gave Lincoln hope that Africans across the Diaspora would strive for self-governance, ruling themselves and accepting responsibility for their own lives There cannot be any other scapegoats outside of ourselves said Aminata Moseka (Abbey's African name).
The 10th child among 12 siblings, Abbey Lincoln came along at a time when black people took pride in their heritage. They researched it, talked about it, lived it and sang about it. She worked with and was in the company of such artists as Miles Davis, Hank Jones, Kendra Shanks, Cassandra Wilson, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Clark Terry, Joe Lovano, Rodney Kendrick, and Randy Weston. An actress, lyricist, poet, songwriter, singer and civil rights activist Abbey was a woman of her time. She recorded We Insist! The Freedom Now Suite with her husband, drummer Max Roach, and famed playwright and poet Oscar Brown Jr., as part of her stance on civil rights. Abbey penned many of her own songs. She released albums such as Golden Lady, Abbey Sings Abbey, It's Me, Over the Years, A Turtle Dream. She sang songs like First Song, The Music is the Magic, Love Has Gone Away, Down Here Below, and Being Me.
Abbey Lincoln starred in For the Love of Ivy, with Sidney Portier, Carroll O'Connor and Beau Bridges for which she received a Golden Globe nomination. She appeared opposite Ivan Dixon in Nothing But A Man and in Spike Lee's film Mo' Better Blues. Abbey received many civic and community awards including the National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Master Award.
In recent years Abbey Lincoln resided at Amsterdam Houses, located in Harlem, where she met her demise at the age of 80, on August 14, 2010. She was cremated.
Abbey Lincoln will not be forgotten. She goes down in the annals of history as an African American music great whose uniqueness of form and style is unequaled.