Jazz Master of the Month: Abbey Lincoln

Feb 2, 2016

Abbey Lincoln, born Anna Marie Wooldridge, is one of the most fearless and uncompromising singers of our era. Singing in a style of both bold projection and expressive restraint, critics often compare her to Billie Holiday. Lincoln’s career ranged from acting in Hollywood films, to outspoken civil rights advocacy in the 1960’s.

Lincoln was the tenth of twelve children, raised in rural Michigan on a large farm. Singing in school and church, she developed an interest in music at a very early age. Lincoln credits the early recordings of Sarah Vaughn, Dinah Washington, and Billie Holiday as the influences that taught her how to sing with conviction. 

The cold harsh winters of Michigan inspired Lincoln to move to California. When she was 22 she also spent a year in Honolulu, Hawaii, singing at a night club under the name Gaby Lee. In California, she met famed lyricist Bob Russell. Russell  became her manager and suggested she change her name to Abbey Lincoln.

Lincoln's gorgeous stage presence spawned a brief but reasonably successful and glamorous acting career. She acted in the romantic comedy For the Love of Ivy with Sidney Poitier, and also sang in the film The Girl Can’t Help It — wearing the same dress that Marilyn Monroe wore in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.


  The prominent music scene in New York city prompted Lincoln to leave Hollywood glamor. It was during one of many of her performances at the Village Vanguard that Lincoln met drummer, bandleader and composer Max Roach.

Roach played an important role in shaping Lincoln’s socio-political role as an activist. He introduced her to the Jazz elite and, after the two married in 1962, they collaborated on several musical projects with Charles Mingus, John Coltrane and Oscar Brown Jr. They performed benefit concerts for the NAACP, CORE and many other civil rights organizations, and recorded the now recognized masterpiece "We Insist, Freedom Now Suite" by Max Roach.

It was during the socially conscious 60's that Lincoln incinerated the Marilyn Monroe dress in protest. After recording “We Insist,” she recorded a project titled “Straight Ahead” which featured the pianist who worked with Billie Holliday up until Billie’s death, Mal Waldron.

After visiting Zaire and Guinea, Africa (at the invitation and encouragement of fellow vocalist Mariam Makeba), and being awarded two honorary appellations from Moseka in Zaire and Aminata, Lincoln began focusing her calling as a storyteller and song writer. She divorced Roach in 1970 and withdrew from the spotlight for a time, taking an apartment above a garage in Los Angeles. She never remarried. 

Lincoln consistently continued to write and create artistically. In an interview before her death, she explained, “I don’t just sit around waiting to write-or sing or paint for that matter. I wait. If I hear something, I’ll write it down or commit it to memory one way or another” 

With the mastery and authority of her years of experience and human understanding, Lincoln sheds light on every song she sings… “How can you have a career and never say anything? To experience it all and not say a word?” she asks. “You’re supposed to stand up and speak your mind in the music. Some people like to hear some reality. I’m not trying to save or fix the world. I’m just singing about my experiences. My songs are observations.”

Lincoln made her career out of pursuing her art with dignity and integrity. She died in a Manhattan nursing home in 2010, after suffering from deteriorating health ever since undergoing open heart surgery in 2007.