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.
Onstage, she is the soul of dignity, delivering her spare, haunting songs with an emotional gravity that locks them in memory. With a small singing voice that obeys its own rules of rhythm and pitch, Lincoln can be an acquired taste. But, as with Holiday, you don't listen to Abbey Lincoln to hear a beautiful vocal instrument.
"I learned from Billie," she says. "It isn't about showing how good your voice is. It's about saying something."
The sculptural integrity of her music has made Lincoln something of an oracle, giving her the same stature in jazz that her friend Maya Angelou has in the culture at large.
"I don't do this to please anybody else," she says. "I do this for myself."
* * *
Lincoln's influence and respect in jazz run so deep that Bridgewater has invited her to join her latest project -- an effort to blend jazz with the music of Mali, the African nation where, some say, the roots of the blues can be found.
"Abbey is for me the last of a wonderful generation of singers," says Bridgewater, 55. "When I was younger and did more theater, people used to say I looked like her."
Denise Garrett -- known as Dee Dee since childhood -- was born in Memphis and grew up in Flint, Mich., where her father taught music.
At 20, she left college to move to New York and marry jazz trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater.
She sang with the Thad Wilson-Mel Lewis big band before landing a role on Broadway as Glinda the Good Witch in "The Wiz." In 1975 she won a Tony Award for best featured actress.
Remarried and living in Los Angeles, she dabbled in disco and pop and almost gave up music for acting before moving to Paris with her two daughters in 1986. Something about France forever captured her heart. She learned the language, married a Frenchman, had a son and opened her life to the sounds and ideas of a new world.
"In Paris, you've got music from at least 20 different countries on the radio," she says. "You see people in their costumes, taking pride in their culture. That's the beauty of living there."
The producer who reignited Lincoln's career on Verve in 1990, Jean-Philippe Allard, signed Bridgewater the same year. She had all but abandoned jazz, but gladly reclaimed her musical heritage.
"I was very adamant about not being called a jazz singer," she says, "but now I've embraced it. The way I approach music is through jazz, so I'm a jazz singer."
Her 1992 album of standards, "Keeping Tradition," received a Grammy nomination, and a 1995 disc of music by Horace Silver made the European pop charts. Her most conspicuous success came with "Dear Ella," a 1997 tribute to Ella Fitzgerald that won Bridgewater two Grammy Awards, including best jazz vocal.
Her most recent recording, "J'ai Deux Amours," originated as a Valentine's Day concert at the Kennedy Center two years ago, when she was invited to perform a set of love songs in French.
"It was my way to say thank you to France," Bridgewater says.
Since 1999, Bridgewater has lived near Las Vegas while maintaining a second home in France. For the past five years, she has been host of National Public Radio's "JazzSet."
Her homecoming hasn't been entirely happy. After the war in Iraq began, Bridgewater and her family felt the growing tensions between France and the United States all too closely. She says their house outside Las Vegas was pelted with eggs, and her son, now 14, was spat on at school. This fall, her husband and son will move back to France, while she commutes between the two countries.
"I feel more at home in France than in the United States," she says. "I think we all have our country, our city where we feel at one with ourselves. For me, that's France."
In Europe, where she is much better known than in her homeland, Bridgewater tours with a lighting designer, sound team and stage decor. She dances, teases and engages her audience in repartee.
"One of the reasons I've had the success I've had is that I put on a show," she says. "I'm not just standing there singing.
"It is a way to communicate with the public. That's exactly what I'm doing: I'm having a conversation."