Twenty years ago, when the film "Nothing But a Man" established that Abbey Lincoln was as good an actress as a singer, it was expected she would be a movie star. In the mid-1960s when jazz composers and vocalists produced protest songs, it seemed natural that Lincoln's smoldering style would make her a standard-bearer. And, 15 years ago, when "For Love of Ivy" put Lincoln out front as a romantic lead, it was expected that she would lead the black film bonanza that followed.

Little of this came true. "After 'Ivy,' I at least thought they would ask me what I wanted to do. I didn't get offers that were respectable, for someone who had given the performance that they talked about. I was not nominated for an Academy Award," Lincoln recalled yesterday afternoon, in the restaurant of her hotel, prior to her opening at d.c. space.

For most of her career, Lincoln, who is 52 and has been performing since she was a teen-ager, has been on the brink of a larger success. Certainly she has a loyal following: "Nothing But a Man" appears on the classic film circuit. Her collaborations with Max Roach, the drummer and her former husband, are considered jazz classics. Yet, in the artistic forms at which she has tried and often excelled, other contemporaries are first in the public memory. Cicely Tyson got the nod for acting, Nina Simone for protest, Nancy Wilson for jazz vocalist, Esther Phillips for the blues.

"I have had a lot of opportunity to be seen and heard, comparatively speaking," she said, pushing down on the brim of a beige felt hat. "Nina stuck with a certain style and a form. That's all she did was to sing. Nancy the same. I have gone from the supper club area to the jazz area to films. So it is confusing for people standing around watching."

Lincoln, who describes herself as an elder jazz virtuoso, is making her first Washington appearance in many years this weekend. She is staying at a dog-eared downtown hotel--she called it "the pits" but just as quickly added that she needs an inexpensive place because she has four musicians with her.

Her story is not about sadness but choices, including the choice to have made her own mistakes and the leisurely option now for some regrets. First there's the detachment, and some disdain, she feels for the business side of the business.

"Since I have discovered the ways of the industry, I have been at odds. I have paid my dues, too," she said. "The industry sees itself as the chief, but the arts precede the industry. I started to do what I do long before I knew there was an industry."

Sometimes, she didn't grab the initiative and other times, Lincoln said, she opted to work on a crumbling personal life. "Really, though, what happened was emotional. At that time, when I was seemingly at the top of the world, the supports and everything just fell out from under me. My marriage bit the dust. And I wasn't well enough, or thinking in terms of career. I was thinking about life. I never did pursue jobs, either. I guess it's just that nothing changed and everything changed . . . I set it aside."

Right after what turned out to be her peak at the beginning of the '70s, Lincoln moved to California, taught college, did some nightclub work, appeared in several television series, made two albums overseas ("People In Me," and "Golden Lady"), which were later released in America, and spent the last years of her mother's life with her. In 1979, she returned to New York clubs. She moved back permanently in 1981.

She's had four names. Her most recent is Aminata Moseka, but she holds on to Abbey Lincoln. " 'Abbey Lincoln' is in history books and I'm not interested in killing her off," she said. Now, though, she is in a period of introspection, closer to the Anna Marie Wooldridge who grew up as in the countryside of Michigan, and simpler and less materialistic than the provocative club singer who called herself Gaby Lee.

Life for her is "a happening, a tight wire . . . maybe I need this dedication to be self-sufficient and in control for what I say and the images I make." There's some comfort in the fact that her old recordings still sell. "They sell like old wine, over the years, they sell now more than they did earlier," she said with a smile that didn't quite reach her direct brown eyes. "I'm glad that my work is evergreen." CAPTION: Picture 1, Lincoln: ''I guess it's just that nothing changed and everything changed.'' Copyright (c) 1981 by Mary Golden; Picture 2, Abbey Lincoln; Copyright (c) 1983 by Michael Wilderman