Courtesy of Abbey Lincoln
Photo copyright Lee Tanner
CHAT WITH ABBEY LINCOLN
In a recent article, Cassandra Wilson created one person as her primary
influence. That person was Abbey Lincoln and that speaks volumes about
her profound impact on her art. Critics or historians or whatever they
are calling themselves these days have done the music a tremendous disservice
when allowing what they perceive as Ms. Lincoln's political views to overshadow
her music, which by all concerned in the know, is commanding. May I present
Ms. Abbey Lincoln, unedited and in her own words.
FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.
ABBEY LINCOLN: I grew up on a farm in Michigan in the house that my father
built for us. I am one of twelve children. I'm the tenth child. When I
was fourteen, we were on our way to move to Kalamazoo, Michigan and my
sister, my oldest sister, one of my oldest sisters brought home a recording
of Billie Holiday and Coleman Hawkins and played it on the victrola. We
didn't have a radio or anything (laughing). Well, the sound of her voice
just went right to my heart, I guess. And I never forgot her or Coleman
Hawkins. But it wasn't brought to me as a child except for that example,
but music was a part of my life. I used to sit at the piano and figure
out the spaces between two sounds.
FJ: Your fondness for Ms. Holiday has been well documented.
ABBEY LINCOLN: She didn't try for anything. She didn't try to prove that
she had a great voice. She sang the words. I don't even remember the name
of the song. I thought that Coleman Hawkins sang "Body and Soul."
Maybe they did it together. Anyway, whatever she was singing about, it
was the sound of her voice. It was so natural. I didn't know anything
about people copying each other yet. I didn't know anything about the
industry. I didn't know anything about music. I failed in music in high
school. I failed in the arts. I failed in a few things. But anyway, Billie
Holiday, I always felt that way about her because she was an individual.
You know, Fred, she was a queen. I wrote this down just so I would say
what I really mean to say, Fred. "Billie Holiday is and was a beautiful
woman, who had love for the people and testified for them with her haunting
performances of 'Strange Fruit,' 'God Bless the Child That's Got His Own,'
and 'Don't Explain.'"
FJ: It is tribute to your character that you were able to establish such
individuality in a household of fourteen.
ABBEY LINCOLN: Well, I was really blessed, Fred. You know why? It is because
of my mother and father. It's them. And I sing their praises a lot, but
they really did do this. They knew how to do this too. They were the first
generation from slavery and they knew how to do this, how to have what
could afford to have. They didn't have to have money. They used their
hands. My father made the house I was born in, made the house I grew up
in until I was fourteen, midwifed my mother for the last six children.
She made everything in the house that you needed and she was spiritual.
And they fought. I mean, they didn't agree on anything (laughing). That's
right. But they came together and brought twelve people, taught us how
to be individuals. They produced a judge. They produced a tool and die
maker, a VIP at a corporation, and me, Abbey. I am really thankful for
them, Fred, because they lived a life before us. They were true to themselves.
They didn't have anything to do with going along with what somebody else
thought you should do. They were just being real and being themselves.
They didn't tell us what to do. So I could sit in, because there was a
piano there that my father furnished for us, I was the one who played.
I experimented there and my mother never said, "Anna Marie (Lincoln's
given name), get off the piano. You're getting on my nerves." My
father never said any such thing to me as well. And consequently, none
of my sisters and brothers said a word. They wanted to, but they never
said a word. And I jumped to the piano and practiced "Contemplation."
FJ: That kind of apparent individualism emanates from your music as well.
ABBEY LINCOLN: Yes, I got it at home. I really was made at home. It is
a natural approach to life. I wasn't taught to love money or revere it.
I didn't give a damn about it and I still don't. We make it from the trees.
It grows on trees. They will tell you that it doesn't, but it does. They
make it out of paper and paper grows on trees. So what is it people want
from us? I was given a life that I was taught to revere and I have a right.
This is my planet just like anybody else's. It's mine. That's what I love
about Billie Holiday. She knew that.
FJ: Throughout your storied career, the media has mistaken that individualism
for radical politics and as a result, lessened the significance of your
ABBEY LINCOLN: (Laughing) Because this is the way people are here, Fred.
They resist what they don't about that's personal or sometimes, it is
not. Social, I learned to be social hanging with some people who were
perceived as radicals and I guess they were. There was Max Roach and Maya
Angelou, Oscar Brown, Jr. This is just a few of them. Ossie Davis and
Ruby Dee and they talked about the world that they lived in. They weren't
what you call pop. They were the artists. That's who I've learned to be
somebody with too, is them. All of them knew who Billie Holiday was and
everybody else, Charlie Parker, people who can think. I was given this
and I'm really thankful because I don't know what I would do here on this
planet if I couldn't think about things or discuss things.
FJ: The first Abbey Lincoln record I heard was Straight Ahead, a Candid
date featuring yourself in the company of the before mentioned Coleman
Hawkins and Max Roach. Eric Dolphy was on that date as well. Had you met
ABBEY LINCOLN: You know, Fred, Roach was helping me. He didn't call himself
my manager, but a lot of things came about because he was there. I never
knew Eric Dolphy. I didn't know who the hell he was at all (laughing).
Roach brought him to the session. He was one of the musicians that worked
with Roach. I thought he was a wonderful young man. He didn't have any
dumb habits. He was just a wonderful young man, who was a brilliant musician.
But I didn't think John Coltrane was great at first either. My ears were
not that trained. Other people knew. Roach knew some things I didn't know
anything about. He still does. He heard the rap artists. It's taken me
a while to get to it (laughing). Yeah, there is a bunch of people here
on the planet who practice and love the arts. It's the only thing we have
to leave here. Nobody remembers you for hootin' and hollerin' things,
except for what you made with your hands or with your brain, what you
created here. They worship a God they say that created everything and
everybody. They ought to all be trying to find the arts here.
FJ: Has the world changed much in the seventy plus years you have been
contributing to it?
ABBEY LINCOLN: No, except that people have become more vicious and more
hateful and it's legal to kill an unborn child. Nobody's life means a
damn thing, the child's nor the elders or anybody else. That's what's
changed. The devil took us (laughing). I say God did give us to the devil.
In the story of Job, yeah, I mean, the devil is only a live. It's not
a man and it's not a woman. It's not a boy or a girl. It is just a thought
and it has power, just like the truth. The thought, it is all about thought,
what you allow yourself to think and believe. There is nothing here, nothing
to believe because everything in the name of freedom and liberty has been
pummeled into the ground.
FJ: Forty years after the Civil Rights Movement, I see very little tolerance
to speak freely of.
ABBEY LINCOLN: Well, they do tolerate each other. We haven't had a war
here yet, well, since the Civil War. We haven't had it and we probably
won't because they are so busy grabbing money. Everybody can have some
of the money. They have to fight amongst themselves. Shit, they all got
the same thing. You know what it is, Fred? The reason the Europeans rule
the world, especially those in America and in Europe, is because God is
in their image and in their likeness and they claim God. The Africans
follow after the Europeans and worship their God, God in their image.
So how are you supposed to have anything like this? They told them not
to do this in the Bible. It was the First Commandment, that you not have
any other gods before him. Well, this is what these folks are doing here
in the name of Jesus, Jesus Christ. It is all a story about the holy child.
That's what it started out to be, of the holy child and here we are, look
at this. The women are walking around half clothed, working to excite
a man she know nothing about. She doesn't need it. It is pitiful.
FJ: What would you prefer society gravitate towards?
ABBEY LINCOLN: Understanding.
FJ: An understanding of what?
ABBEY LINCOLN: Of life, of being what you are, an understanding of being
human. How could the people be excited about sex with how many billions
of people on the planet? And we don't know anything about sex? Really?
Oh, this is absolutely disgusting. They need to slap the faces of these
people. They really do. This is disgusting. You're taking up people's
time with a subject like this? You really don't know what the act of sex
is for? If it didn't look good, nobody would ever do it. It promises to
feel good and it is the only way we can get back on the planet. So why
are they standing before the door cursing us? Murdering us. The devil's
got the country.
FJ: As much as you have slated your place in the history of this music,
you have also been acting on occasion as well.
ABBEY LINCOLN: Yes, it is a wonderful experience, but it depends on who
you are acting out. Some people believe that they are not the people that
they are acting. I know I am (laughing). I haven't done a lot of pictures,
but I always pick somebody or I'm picked for somebody who I can live with.
I flew out of my conscious and introduce her. I only played four. The
first one was The Girl Can't Help It. I sang a song in a Jayne Mansfield
movie. I wore a dress that they said Marilyn Monroe in a film called Gentlemen
Prefer Blondes. I could have been insulted. I guess I just was stupid
because it didn't insult me. And then, I made a movie called Nothing But
a Man produced my three wonderful men, who were Jews and saw this drama
in the South. And I don't know we'd do without the Jewish people here
because I know I don't know what I'd do because they've always been there
for us when it came to work. When it comes to work, they've always been
there for me: the albums, the music that I record, everything that I do,
interviewers who make the movies. We don't do this for ourselves. I don't
know why, but we don't. It's not that we can't, but we don't and we won't
I guess. Anyways, and then I made For Love of Ivy with Sidney Poitier.
And everybody expected that I would run across the field to be a star
(laughing), but I didn't. I didn't run anywhere. I didn't give a hoot
and I still don't because I'm a singer and I don't want to sit around
waiting to make a movie and I don't know who the character is going to
be. I don't know what the film is going to be about. But this is a movie?
Then give it to their mother. I'm not doing that.
FJ: What do you find irresistible about singing?
ABBEY LINCOLN: For the most part, I don't sing around the house. I just
do it at work, when I'm performing.
FJ: What is home life like?
ABBEY LINCOLN: It depends. Sometimes I just lay about and then I have
a collection of paintings and I write and I have a thesis and I have a
couple of plays. So I know how to work at home.
FJ: Throughout her career and even in a recent Time article, Cassandra
Wilson creates you as being her primary influence.
ABBEY LINCOLN: Isn't that wonderful? She's a beautiful woman and a wonderful
singer. Just like I talk about Billie Holiday (laughing). But you know,
Fred, there are many women. It's not only Billie. I remember Sarah Vaughan.
I was singing her songs, "You're Mine, You" and "Don't
Blame Me." Dinah Washington, "Mean and Evil Blues." I remember
Mitch Miller laughing when I sang this for him (laughing). Ella Fitzgerald,
(singing) "A-Tisket, A-Tasket, I lost my yellow basket." There
are so many and Bessie Smith. It's a spirit that was created a long time
ago in Africa when the climate and everything afforded it. It was a way
of life. We're really a bunch of rotten, spoiled kids now. There was a
time when we were really given everything, the time and the energy and
the interest in practicing the arts, dancing, singing, playing instruments,
measuring the distance from the earth to the sun, I mean, it was deep.
It is amazing that we can fall this far into a ditch after being so high
FJ: And your latest for Verve, Wholly Earth.
ABBEY LINCOLN: I'm not doing this alone, Fred. The man who brought me
my career after all I had been through is Jean-Phillipe Allard. He was
with Polygram music there, Phillips and now it is Universal. He really
rose to a wonderful position. He's a beautiful and a great man. He brought
me all the albums that I have made in the last ten years. I haven't done
this on my own. I didn't know how to do this. The creative forces sent
me to him, sent him to me. He doesn't play an instrument, but he's a great
musician. He knows what he's listening to and he's respectful.
FJ: As he and all of us should be.
ABBEY LINCOLN: Oh, it's my pleasure. I enjoyed it, Fred. Thank you.
Fred Jung is Jazz
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