Brilliance at Both Ends of the Jazz Universe

Dee Dee Bridgewater, left, and Abbey Lincoln are among the headliners at the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival, which begins Thursday.
Dee Dee Bridgewater, left, and Abbey Lincoln are among the headliners at the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival, which begins Thursday. (By Philippe Pierengeli)
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 7, 2006

The similarities are inescapable. Born a generation apart, singers Abbey Lincoln and Dee Dee Bridgewater grew up in Michigan, won acclaim for their acting, were married to musicians, revived their careers with the help of a French record producer and have long worn the robes of jazz royalty.

Both will be in Washington this week as headliners at the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival at the Kennedy Center. Bridgewater will appear Thursday at the Terrace Theater, and Lincoln will perform Friday -- the biggest names of a three-night roster of jazz performances by nine artists.

Their careers may have curious parallels, but Lincoln and Bridgewater have vastly different vocal styles. Bridgewater is an extroverted crowd-pleaser who embellishes her music with flights of rococo invention and risque flirtation. Lincoln, designated a jazz master by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2003, has reduced her art to a finely chiseled minimalism.

At 75, Lincoln may be the most venerated woman in jazz today. Born Anna Marie Wooldridge in Chicago, she grew up in rural Michigan and began to pick out tunes on the family piano when she was 5. She discovered her course in life when she first heard a Billie Holiday record at age 14.

"I always think about Billie Holiday," she says, speaking from her home in New York. "She was concerned with the world she lived in."

Lincoln is talking about songs like "God Bless the Child" and "Strange Fruit," songs with messages that reach deeper than the heartache of romance. As Lincoln has grown older, this sense of social consciousness has infused her own life and art.

After launching her career as a supper club sex kitten, she adopted the name Abbey Lincoln -- after Abraham Lincoln -- in 1956. She posed for come-hither album covers in her early years and appeared in a rock-and-roll romp, "The Girl Can't Help It," with Jayne Mansfield and Little Richard.

After meeting jazz drummer Max Roach, Lincoln transformed her music and her image. She stopped straightening her hair, becoming one of the first prominent female performers with an Afro, and gave up torch songs for bebop with an edge.

In 1960 she and Roach, who were married from 1962 to 1970, released the uncompromising "We Insist! Freedom Now Suite," which featured Lincoln's wordless shrieks over Roach's thundering drums.

Taking part in the growing black-awareness movement, she was described by poet Nikki Giovanni as "A strong black wind blowing/Gently on and on."

Lincoln starred in a pair of films in the 1960s, "Nothing but a Man" and "For Love of Ivy," but by decade's end producers had stopped calling, her record sales were slumping and she and Roach were divorced.

During the '70s, she was almost invisible as she took care of her mother, traveled in Africa and embarked on a spiritual quest. Remembering the words of Thelonious Monk, who encouraged her composing when she put lyrics to one of his tunes, she began to write songs and slowly made her way back to music. She seemed to find her true voice at the age of 60, when she released the first of nine landmark albums showcasing her deceptively simple compositions.

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