Abbey Lincoln’s brave choice

Posted by : admin | On : August 15, 2010

Abbey Lincoln, around 1956.

There weren’t many choices for a stunningly beautiful and talented black woman who wanted to combine singing with acting in the late ’50s and early ’60s.


Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge, who should have been among the top five female box-office attractions in Hollywood during this period, never got the wide range of roles they might have played.


Like Horne and Dandridge before her, Abbey Lincoln had become a sex symbol, largely on the strength of her appearance in “The Girl Can’t Help It” (1956), in which she very capably filled out — in Cinemascope — the dress that had been worn by Marilyn Monroe in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”


In the December4, 1958 issue of Jet magazine, Lincoln, coming off what an article described as the “champagne circuit,”  said the image didn’t really suit her.


“I’m a black woman and I have to sing about things I feel and know about, blues and jazz. At the other places, something inside of me was not content. I didn’t really fit in. It was an act.”


By the following year, she was collaborating with husband-to-be Max Roach on the towering  “We Insist: The Freedom Now Suite” ( Candid, 1960), possibly the civil rights movement’s definitive musical document. “Freedom Day” is, for me, the most inspiring cut on that LP.


When Lincoln met Max Roach, another avenue opened up to her. She put her hair into a natural, and used her magnificent voice to express frustration and rage when she chose, or sarcasm, as she did in “Mendacity,” from Roach’s “Percussion Bitter Sweet” album (Impulse, 1961).


She was also still very capable of combining tenderness with longing, as she might have in any blues setting. That’s true of my favorite Lincoln song of all, “Lonesome Lover,” from “It’s Time” (Impulse, 1962).


Of course, Lincoln’s new freedom came at a price.


The controversial jazz critic Ira Gitler lambasted her for the 1961 LP “Straight Ahead,” another fearless, politically charged set, this time under her own name.


Gitler, in the November 1961 issue of DownBeat, charged that Lincoln had become a “professional Negro” whose songs had “banal” lyrics. He even had the temerity to belittle her passion for African nationalism.


“[T]he African Negro doesn’t give a fig about the American Negro, especially if they are not blackly authentic. I would advise her to … talk to a Negro jazzman of my acquaintance who felt a strong draft on meeting African Negroes in Paris. Pride in one’s heritage is one thing, but we don’t need the Elijah Muhammed [sic] thing in jazz.”*


*Ingrid Monson, “Freedom Sounds: Civil Rights Call Out to Jazz and Africa,” Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 239.


This led to an explosive two-part DownBeat panel discussion on racism in jazz in early 1962, featuring Lincoln, Roach, Gitler and Village Voice jazz critic Nat Hentoff. In that article, Lincoln dismissed Gitler’s claim that his two-star rating for “Straight Ahead” was based entirely on the album’s music, and especially his “professional Negro” crack.


“You know, when I was a professional Negro, nobody seemed to mind … I was capitalizing on the fact that I was a Negro, and I looked the way Western people expect you to look. I wore ridiculous dresses, and I sang the songs that were expected.

“…And as soon as I said ‘I don’t want to do this anymore; I want to give the best that I have to the public,’ they came down on me with all four feet.”


*Monson, p. 241.


Despite the defiant integrity Lincoln and Roach displayed in this interview, which must have been an incredible read at the time, there were apparently black people who disapproved. In his “So They Say” column for April 3, 1962, Al Monroe was succinct.


“That article done by Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln on ‘prejudice in jazz’ should never have been released. It is a sort of misinformed drag.”


For much of the 10-year period between 1962 and 1972, Lincoln struggled to find work, despite her brilliant performance in the 1964 film “Nothing But A Man,” in which she and Ivan Dixon portray a young black couple going through travails in the racist South. Her marriage to Roach ended in 1968.


Yet, until her death on Saturday at age 80, Abbey Lincoln soldiered on, reviving her singing career and earning the kind of respect that Ira Gitler and others should have given her 50 years ago.


Rest In Peace, Miss Lincoln.


Here she is, with Roach, and Clifford Jordan on tenor sax, singing “Driva Man” from “The Freedom Now Suite.”


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