Abbey Lincoln, 80

Jazz singer, actress Abbey Lincoln dies at 80

Abbey Lincoln simplified her singing style.
Abbey Lincoln simplified her singing style. "It isn't about showing how good your voice is," she said. "It's about saying something." (Brad Barket/getty Images)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 15, 2010

Abbey Lincoln, a jazz singer and actress of unshakable integrity who transformed her image from that of a slinky chanteuse to an oracle of hard-won wisdom, died Aug. 14 in New York. She had been in precarious health since having open-heart surgery in 2007, but the precise cause of death could not be learned. She was 80.

Ms. Lincoln found early fame as a sex-kitten supper-club singer and made a cameo appearance in the campy 1956 teen film "The Girl Can't Help It," starring Jayne Mansfield. After meeting and later marrying jazz drummer Max Roach, she became one of the first entertainers to make civil rights and racial pride an overt cause. She was a noted film actress in the 1960s, then retreated to obscurity before staging a remarkable comeback in the 1990s as a singer, songwriter and spiritual elder.

"Certain people inside the African-American experience . . . act as griots, bearers of the culture," singer Cassandra Wilson told Newsweek magazine in 1992. "Paul Robeson was something like that. And so is she."

Soon after making "The Girl Can't Help It," in which she appeared in a sparkly dress previously worn by Marilyn Monroe, Ms. Lincoln abandoned her come-hither style and the form-fitting gowns that went with it. She even burned the dress in an incinerator, she said, as a symbol of personal emancipation.

She stopped straightening her hair and in 1959 released one of her most memorable early albums, "Abbey Is Blue." In 1960, she and Roach made the then-radical recording "We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite," which has been called the first outright protest album. It included Roach's thundering drums and Ms. Lincoln's occasional shrieks and moans, representing oppression and hardship.

"That was one of the most thrilling experiences I ever had," the album's producer, Nat Hentoff, said Saturday. "Everything was at a high level of intensity."

Other critics, however, derided Ms. Lincoln for introducing a political element to jazz, and her opportunities to record began to dwindle. Turning to acting, she starred with Ivan Dixon in the 1964 racial drama "Nothing But a Man" and as a maid opposite Sidney Poitier in "For Love of Ivy" (1968). The films were among the first Hollywood depictions of mature, loving relationships between black women and black men.

After her eight-year marriage to Roach ended, Ms. Lincoln spent the 1970s caring for her mother in Los Angeles. She taught acting, traveled in Africa and concentrated on writing songs. In the early 1980s, she settled in New York and returned to performing, with a distinctly fresh approach.

"I don't scream anymore," she said. "I sing about my life."

She drew inspiration from one of her idols, Billie Holiday, paring her singing to an unembellished minimum. Unlike many jazz singers, Ms. Lincoln indulged in little improvisation or scatting, the singing of wordless syllables in rapid sequence.

"I learned from Billie," she told The Washington Post in 2006. "It isn't about showing how good your voice is. It's about saying something."

Lacking the elastic vocal range of her early years, Ms. Lincoln found a new emotional depth in such later recordings as "The World Is Falling Down" (1990), "Devil's Got Your Tongue" (1993), "A Turtle's Dream" (1995) and "Who Used to Dance" (1996).

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