Reveries of Abbey Lincoln
by Playthell Benjamin
From the first time I ever heard of Abbey Lincoln she was associated with the struggle for the freedom and dignity of Black folks. Since I was a boy I had been a fanatic for her husband Max Roach’s drumming. Growing up in a community where mastering a musical instrument was considered a heroic deed, and playing the drums was a manifestation of manly prowess only slightly less masculine than playing football – which was a civic religion in Florida – Max Roach was both a manly role model and artistic icon, a God-like presence with mythical powers.
When Max married Abbey, she instantly became something of a Goddess in my mind. And since I had already rejected the God people around me worshiped, I was free to pick and choose my own Gods: So why not them? I had never heard of Abbey before she married Max, but they quickly became the first couple of the Black Arts Movement. Teasing brown and strikingly beautiful, she was well spoken, a talented singer and actress, and carried herself like an African warrior queen prepared to do battle in defense of her own freedom and dignity, and by word and deed that of her people.
Although her fame would have been restricted by white racism – a white girl with her attributes would have blown up as big as ice cream – she still could have found commercial success. But Abbey was committed to higher goals, like the liberation and elevation of her oppressed people; once you experience that freedom high nothing can compare with it. Many years later Abbey was still unrepentant about her decision. In a 1992 Essence magazine interview, she told Jill Nelson: “People make you over, they give you other songs to sing, you wear the clothes they choose, they find you a personality they think will sell. It’s all about prostitution, when you come down to it.”
Abbey was one of the first Black female stars, following the great folk singer and freedom fighter Odetta, to wear her hair “au natural.” Unlike Odetta, however, Abbey had the look that could have made her a famous glamour girl a la Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge. It is enough to see her in that red dress in the 1956 movie “The Girl Can’t Help It” starring Jayne Mansfield to know that this is no exaggeration. This dress had been previously worn by Marilyn Monroe in “Gentlemen Prefer Blonds,” but I prefer Abbey – honey brown and gorgeous with more curves than a country road in the hills of Jamaica.
However, unlike Lena and Dorothy, who allowed their images and career paths to be molded by white producers and public relations experts, Abbey chose a different role for herself and rejected the superficiality of pop fame in favor of becoming a serious artist in the complex Afro-American art music called jazz. This was a risky business compared to the instant stardom and the spoils that come with it if one achieves success in pop music or the movies.
When Abbey joined Max and the Braithwaite brothers, Kwame and Elombe, in creating the “African Jazz Art Society” in Harlem during 1958, it was the beginning of the “Black Arts Movement.” She caught the zeitgeist and moved with the spirit of the times. The result was one of the most interesting collaborations in twentieth century American music.
The apotheosis of that collaboration was the “Freedom Suite,” which was recorded as “We Insist: Freedom Now!” in 1960. It was a prophetic work of art that presaged the militant struggles that would mark the decade and scared a lot of the white cultural critics to death. With music by Max Roach, who had a degree in composition from the Manhattan School of Music, and lyrics by the great Chicago song poet and musical dramatist Oscar Brown Jr., the album was electrifying. Listening to it now, I hear echoes of the era, a sound portrait of one of the most dynamic periods in American history.
It is no exaggeration to say that the events of the 1960s reshaped the way millions of Americans view their country. Everything from the way we treat the environment to gender relations, and even the definition of gender itself, were called into question as a result of the Afro-American assault on the racial caste system and the cultural redefinition inspired by that movement. The freedom suite gave artistic expression to that ferment.
On compositions like “Driva Man,” “Tears for Johannesburg” and “Triptych: Prayer / Protest / Peace,” the power of Abbey’s soulful contralto voice gives life to Max’s music and power to Oscar’s poignant lyrics. The dramatic timbres and dark indigo colors of her voice embody all the pathos of the experience the compositions describe in words and music. Given her talents as an actress, Abbey was the ideal artist for this project, which often required her to assume the dramatis personae suggested by the lyrics she sang. “Triptych,” which is just Max on drums and Abbey’s vocalese, is blood curdling: No one can listen to it and not be moved.
The testimony of the New Orleans writer and college teacher Kalamu ya Salaam’s description of his response upon first hearing it when Max and Abbey came to New Orleans and performed at Dillard University – a Black school – mirrors what many of us felt:
“I just stood next to the stage, holding my camera in my hand but not raising it to shoot. I was mesmerized. Abbey Lincoln was riveting. I was stunned. I literally just stood there. I’m sure my mouth was hanging agape.” He goes on to explain: “Abbey and Max made me believe in time travel, believe in the power of a secular Holy Ghost, a terrible Shiva-force that destroyed you to renew you. I was afraid for her – and for myself also. It seemed as though she might hurt herself. It seemed as if I should do something helpful and not just be a stationary stump while she was going through this. This was not just jazz. This was a religious experience. A new way to live.”
Max and Abbey split up after a decade of marriage and an even longer period of collaboration. Max never worked with a singer on a regular basis again and Abbey went her own way, but she has been clear about the role Max played in the artistic path she took. In a 1970 interview with Gallery 41, Abbey recalled: “I was in New York, miserable because I was working supper clubs but I wasn’t expressing myself. I was really unhappy with my life. I saw Max again and he told me I didn’t have to do things like that. He made me an honest woman on the stage. I have been performing in that tradition since. I feel that I’m a serious performer now, whereas then I wanted to be but I didn’t know how.”
Abbey would appear in two memorable movies: “Nothing But a Man” with Ivan Dixon and “For the Love of Ivy” with Sidney Poitier. Although these films did not lead to a rash of roles for Abbey – which is par for the course where Black actresses are concerned – these performances do display her versatility as an actress. In the former film she is a proper daughter of the middle class, and in the latter she is a working class woman, and she is quite convincing in both roles. She also became an essayist and a powerful lyricist.
Born in Chicago in 1930, during the Great Depression, Abbey Lincoln, whose given name at birth was Anna Marie Wooldridge, was raised in rural Michigan as the 10th of 12 children. She was a woman who reinvented herself several times before she finally became Aminata Moseka. In an interview with Lara Pellegrinelli, she explained her fantastic journey from Anna Marie to Aminata:
“I’m Aminata Moseka. I got a bunch of names. Anna Marie Wooldridge was the name I was born with. Then I took Gaby because the people at the Moulin Rouge in Los Angeles wanted me to have a French name. They didn’t know I already had one. I didn’t either. Anna Marie is as French as it gets. And Wooldridge is English. They gave me Gaby and kept Wooldridge so I had a German and an English name. It’s America! [laughs] And then Bob Russell named me Abbey Lincoln, because we used to sit and talk about life. He understood how I felt about my people because he felt the same way about his. He said to me, ‘Well, since Abraham Lincoln didn’t free the slaves, maybe you could handle it.’ Named me Abbey Lincoln and I laughed, but that’s the name that I took. Abbey for Westminster Abbey, he told me, and Lincoln for Abraham Lincoln. He was aware of his self and of his people – socially aware. He’s the first socially aware person that I met. Bob Russell. Roach is socially aware. Duke Ellington, all of the great ones.”
It goes without saying that she too is one of the great ones. The marvelous saga of her life is evidence of it. It is not often that we witness a performer walk away from the glamorous life of fame and fortune to stand on principle and devote her life to the service of others out of sheer love of their people. Aminata Moseka was a great lady and cultural warrior who used her art as a weapon for the oppressed. The last two times I saw her perform were at the funeral of Betty Carter, where she gave a soul stirring rendition of “Land of the Midnight Sun,” and when she healed the spirits of the refugees from the destruction of Katrina in the great celebration and fund raiser for the Crescent City at “Jazz at Lincoln Center.” I shall always remember her voice as a healing vibration – a salve for wounded spirits. There are not nearly enough of such generous people in this world; if there were, the world would be a better place. We shall miss her; for we shall not soon find her equal … if ever.
Harlem-based Playthell Benjamin is the producer of Commentaries on the Times, which he writes and delivers on WBAI radio in New York City, and a producer with The Midnight Ravers, a long running WBAI show exploring the world of art and politics, which has won several radio awards for excellence in programming. He is an award winning journalist who has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in two different categories: Explanatory Journalism, Village Voice 1988, and Distinguished Commentary, New York Daily News 1995. Playthell has held a professorship in History and Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts and recently held an adjunct professorship in journalism at Long Island University. His essays on music criticism have appeared in a wide variety of publications and his interests range from classical music to jazz to Latin and hip hop. He writes program notes for “Jazz at Lincoln Center” concerts and is an accomplished Latin percussionist who can be viewed playing with the group Zon Del Barrio on YouTube. This commentary first appeared on Commentaries on the Times.
Max and Abbey in performance
In addition to Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach, the musicians are Eddie Kahn on bass, Clifford Jordan on sax and Coleridge Perkins on piano.
Abbey in ‘Nothing But a Man’
“Nothing But a Man” is a 1964 movie about a Black man in the South who wants to be treated as “nothing but a man,” instead of a “boy.” It stars Ivan Dixon, Abbey Lincoln, Julius Harris, Gloria Foster, Martin Priest, Leonard Parker and Yaphet Kotto. The movie, which was written by Michael Roemer and Robert M. Young and directed by Roemer, has been deemed “culturally significant” by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.