By Charles J. Gans
NEW YORK – In a career spanning half a century, Abbey Lincoln turned her back on the image-makers who wanted to turn her into a Marilyn Monroe in sepia. Instead, she chose to go her own way as an uncompromising jazz singer, songwriter, actress and civil-rights advocate.
Lincoln died Saturday in New York at age 80.
As a jazz singer, Lincoln lacked the technical prowess of an Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan. She rarely scatted or improvised on the melody line. Her vocal style was built around her phrasing, interpretation of the lyrics and emotion, drawing on her acting skills.
She also stood out from other jazz singers because she mostly performed her original songs rather than relying on standards. She credited jazz pianist Thelonious Monk for encouraging her to become a songwriter after she wrote a lyric to his tune “Blue Monk” for her 1961 album, “Straight Ahead.”
Her last album of new material, “Abbey Sings Abbey,” released in 2007, found her performing her compositions such as “Throw It Away” in new, sparser arrangements. Her legacy lives on through other jazz singers who have included her songs in their repertoires.
“The stories in her songs are deeply personal and universal; socially relevant, spiritual, ironic, compassionate, tender, ferocious, uplifting, celebratory,” said jazz singer Kendra Shank, whose 2007 CD, “A Spirit Free,” was devoted to Lincoln’s songbook, in a statement e-mailed to The Associated Press. “It’s impossible to measure the impact that she and her work have had on me as an artist and a human being.”
Lincoln traced her lineage to Billie Holiday and back to Bessie Smith. Her former husband and jazz mentor, the pioneering bebop drummer Max Roach, once observed that what linked her to Holiday was the storytelling tradition.
“I cannot say that Abbey sounds like Billie Holiday, but she is original like Billie Holiday,” Roach said in an AP interview before his death. “Abbey deals with the real word. … Singers like Abbey, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith … go beyond being jazz singers because they are storytellers.”
Lincoln began singing professionally in 1951 as Gaby Wooldridge. She worked in Honolulu before hitting the supper-club circuit in Los Angeles. Producers at Hollywood’s Moulin Rouge gave her the more exotic name Gaby Lee, dressing her up in feathers and slit dresses.
Her manager, songwriter Bob Russell, came up with the name “Abbey Lincoln,” after Abraham Lincoln and Westminster Abbey.
“He gave me the name because he knew I was concerned about my people,” Lincoln said in a 1993 AP interview.
The cover of her 1955 debut album, “Affair … A Story of a Girl in Love,” depicted her as a vamp in a flimsy dress. The following year, she had a bit singing part in the Jayne Mansfield movie “The Girl Can’t Help It,” in which she appeared in a red dress worn by Marilyn Monroe in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” The dress landed her on the cover of Ebony magazine.
Around this time, Lincoln fell in love with Roach, who encouraged her to become a jazz singer. She tossed the Marilyn Monroe dress into the incinerator. They married in 1962.
In 1957, Lincoln recorded her first real jazz album, “That’s Him,” with a band led by Roach featuring saxophonist Sonny Rollins.
On “We Insist! (Freedom Now Suite)” — her 1960 collaboration with Roach and Oscar Brown Jr. — Lincoln shocked many with her angry screaming on an album that was a testament against racism.
“Abbey Lincoln together with Max Roach represented the queen and king of the civil-rights movement circa 1960s,” said veteran bassist Richard Davis in an e-mail statement. “When they separated, I really felt a void in progress toward humanity.”
Her outspokenness led to problems getting record dates, but she landed a starring role in the 1964 film “Nothing but a Man” that dealt with the struggle against racism in the South and the right to be treated with dignity.
After making “For Love of Ivy” with Sidney Poitier in 1968, Lincoln refused to take roles she considered demeaning in “blaxploitation” movies. She didn’t appear in another film until the 1990 Spike Lee film “Mo’ Better Blues.”
Lincoln’s musical career languished in the 1970s and ’80s, after her marriage to Roach ended. She recorded on small independent labels, but then signed with Verve’s French subsidiary, which gave her artistic freedom to explore her talents as a songwriter and surrounded her with topflight musicians.
Her comeback began with 1990’s “The World Is Falling Down,” which featured jazz stars such as pianist Hank Jones and trumpeter Clark Terry.
She followed that a year later with one of her biggest critical and commercial successes — the jazz-chart topping “You Gotta Pay the Band” — featuring one of the last studio recordings by saxophonist Stan Getz.