An Interview With Abbey Lincoln from 2001

Yesterday was the 81st birthday anniversary of the singer Abbey Lincoln—also known as Aminata Moseka, and born Anna Marie Wooldridge—who died last August 14th.

Like her inspiration, Billie Holiday, Lincoln was never out to prove that her voice was a great instrument — although, in its own way, it was. Never afraid to make a mistake, never self-censoring, she reached for what she heard. Usually it worked.

I had an opportunity to interview Ms. Lincoln for the bn.com website in February 2001, when her Verve album, Over The Years — one of many superb collaborations with the French producer Jean-Philippe Allard — was released. What follows is the unedited transcript.

Follow this link for her discography.

Abbey Lincoln (2-5-01):

In all of the records that you’ve done with Jean-Philippe Allard, you’ve had various magnificent tonal personalities intersecting with you.  How do you go about deciding who you’re going to work with and make music with for each particular project?

Well, I use my band, as usual, the trio that I work with.  It was Jean-Philippe who suggested Joe Lovano.  I hadn’t thought of him for the album.  But I’m glad he did.  He was brilliant.  And I asked for Jerry Gonzalez, because he worked with me before as a percussionist on an album called Talking To The Sun.  I didn’t know he played trumpet!  Jaz Sawyer, who is a brilliant musician and drummer, I asked him about a cello player, and he sent me Jennifer Vincent.  Kendra Shank came to see me one day, and we were having a little jam, and she played this song for me and I fell in love with it.

Did you do that much before the association with Verve; that is, intersect with other horns within your groups in the period directly before that?

People in Me.  In the album I made in Japan, Miles Davis sent me some of his musicians.  I asked him for his drummer, and he sent me Al Foster, Mtume and Dave Liebman.  I’ve always had a lot of help in the music.  When I was with Roach, I got to work with Coleman Hawkins.  My first album was with Benny Carter, and Marty Paich was one of the arrangers.  Jack Montrose as well.

But you know, it’s a happening.  I’m not that wise.  It’s like writing a song.  I start out at a point, and it gathers energy.  I’m fortunate, I think.

What usually comes first, the words or the music, when you’re writing a song?

It all depends.  Sometimes it’s the words.  Usually it’s the words, and sometimes the music comes much later.  But it’s a story that I hear, a point of view, and I have  developed it with the words and with the music.  But the words are really important for me.

Your songs on this record, are they all recent or do they come from different points?  Part of what I’m asking is:  Do you write for projects, or with each project do you select from a well of material?

I select from a wealth of material.  I don’t wait to record to write a song.  If it comes to me, I write it then.  “Bird Alone,” when I wrote that, I was in Japan, and Miles Davis was working there as well.  He wasn’t so well, you know.  And I thought I was writing it for him.  But it really was for myself.  Later on, years later, I finished the song and recorded it.

The records that you’ve done with Allard have been so rich…

Yes.

…in so many ways.  I wonder if you could speak about that relationship and the effect on your records.

I  think he is very, very bright.  He is a brilliant man, and he knows a lot about music, not only this form, but the Classical tradition and other forms.  He called me in 1989 and asked me what I wanted to do.  He never tried or suggested that I didn’t know what I was doing, and he wanted to help me to do what I was doing, and that’s what he’s done.  The first album was called The World Is Falling Down.  He brought me J.J. Johnson.  And I asked for Ron Carter.  So I get this kind of help from him.  I asked for Stan Getz, and he told me he would check it out.  So I’ve not been here alone.  Jean-Philippe is a great ally.  He told me that the newest album, Over The Years, he liked it a lot.  So a lot of it is due to an alliance with Allard.

In interpreting your tunes, how specific are you with the musicians?

They’re brilliant.

They help create the arrangements…

No.  They’re head arrangements.  In that way they help create them.  But I know how many choruses I’m going to use.  I know what key it is in.  And I write them.  So it’s me.

Does that develop on the bandstand over touring?

No! [LAUGHS] It’s not as if… They have lead-sheets, they learn the songs, and bring their understanding and their spirit to it.  So I don’t try and really control things — except that I do.  I like the tempo that I want.  Everything is about how I hear the song.  And they know how to interpret the song.  Brandon McCune is brilliant.  So is John Ormond, and so is Jaz Sawyer.  That’s my quartet.

Let me ask you about the notion of style, which I think is an insufficient word to describe the way you sing, or maybe I should call it the craft of singing.  I realize you’ve said these things before, but could you discuss  some of the singers you concentrated on when you were forming your singing personality, and a few words about them.

Well, I heard Billie Holiday when I was 14, on a Victrola, in the country where I was living.  She was always a great influence on my life.  She was social.  And she didn’t try to prove that she had a great instrument.  This is not the form for people who use that approach.  That’s the European Classical tradition.  We have voices.  Louis Armstrong was a great singer.  It has nothing to do with having a great voice.  So I had a chance to listen and to meet many of these great performers and singers, and I come from Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, all of these people.  I sing in that tradition.  I don’t try for anything they do, just like they didn’t try for anything that anybody else was doing, but interpret a song on a level of understanding and with skills, knowing where one is… They’re brilliant.  It’s a brilliant musical form.  The musicians are masterful when it comes to theory and harmony… Yeah.

So I’m not here alone.  I learned a lot about the music through Max Roach.  I didn’t know about Charlie Parker, I didn’t know who he was — or Dizzy or Monk or all these people.  Working with Max, I had a chance to meet some of these folks.  All of them.

You were just speaking about singing the song with understanding.  Could you say a few words about the songs not by you on Over the Years.  I’m interested in “Somos Novios.”

Yes!  That’s a beautiful love song.

And you sing it beautifully..

Thank you.  Armando Mazanero is the writer.  I’ve been singing this song for about 15 years, and in Spanish.  I’m not sure of everything I’m saying, but I know that it’s a love song.  We are lovers.  And it has nothing to do with motive or anything.  A pure love.  It’s one of my favorite songs.

The opening song “When The Lights Go On Again,” is one I’m unfamiliar with.

That comes from the Second World War.  When I was 12 or 13 or something like that, I heard that song.  I must have been in Kalamazoo at the time.  One day I was thinking, working on the album before I went into the studio, and  that line just came into my ear.  “When the lights go on again all over the world.”  I thought, “Wow.”  So I called the music store, and they sent it to me…or somebody brought it for me.  So it’s like an unconscious companion that is with me all the time, and whispers in my ear sometimes.

I have a certain memory of “The Windmills of Your Mind” with a certain connotation, but it’s certainly not the connotation that you give it.

Well, that’s the glory of a song.  It can have more than one meaning.

On Lovano’s solo he sounds like a windmill.

Yes.

“Lucky To Be Me.”

That’s the great Leonard Bernstein.  I remember singing that song years ago.  There was a brilliant singer named Mabel Mercer, and I heard her sing that on a recording, and I’d been meaning to sing it over the years, but I finally got to it.

And I was spellbound by the conclusion, by “Tender As a Rose.”  I was listening last night at about 1 in the morning over headphones so I could have you in my head overnight, and it caught me!

It’s the second time I had a chance to record it.  The first time was on an album called That’s Him, with Max and Sonny Rollins and Kenny Dorham, Paul Chambers, and Wynton Kelly.  I hadn’t had a chance to have it transposed, because Wynton did that for me.  We needed one more song, so I sang it alone, and I’m glad I did.  Phil Moore, the composer and the writer, was a brilliant coach whom I went to see a couple of times.  He was one of Lena Horne’s teachers.  So I added the last line.  “Well, that’s the way the story goes, and sometimes the rose was he.”  Joanne is here, too.  Joe isn’t the only one who is a stalker.  Joanne does that, too.  Know what I mean?  And leads a youngster astray.

I was actually about to ask you about the conclusion of the song.  Because not many women would really think to say something like that at the end of a song about evil men.

Well, women like to talk about a man.  This is what the songs always were when I came to the stage.  It’s about this man who she has to have, and how he treats her badly.  Well, I decided I’m not singing that any more.  If he’s nothin’, then that makes me nothin’ too.  Mmm-hmm.  So I sing, for the most part, the praises of a man.  He’s God and the Devil and she’s not responsible for anything! [LAUGHS] Well, anyway, I’m not playing that.

But I guess you were placed in that role a lot in the first stage of your career…

Yes.

…as far as having to sing that kind of material and project that type of image.

Yes.  I was following after the other singers.  Sarah was singing, “You’re mine, you; you belong to me; I will never free you.” [LAUGHS] I was singing the songs of the women who were prominent on the stage.  “Happiness is just a THING called Joe.”  And “My Man, he beats me, too, what shall I do.”  I thought, “Well, leave him.”  You know?  So I found my way to other conversations and to other things to address.

Another thing that’s fascinating to me is that your songwriting started in mid-life. 

It takes a while, I think, to awaken here.  I have been writing words, but I never saw myself as a composer.  And I would write lyrics to other people’s songs, like Oscar Brown, Jr.  So I wrote a lyric to Thelonious’ “Blue Monk.”  We hadn’t talked about it.  I didn’t ask him if I could write it.  But I just wrote it, because I felt that I knew what he was talking about, and it really touched me.  And he gave me permission to use it, to record it, and was instrumental… Because he was quoted on the liner notes to an album… They asked Max to do the liner notes when Straight Ahead was rereleased about ten years later.  And Thelonious was quoted as saying that I was not only a great singer and actress, but a great composer.  I had never written a thing.  I knew that he knew something that I didn’t know.  Because Thelonious was not a flatterer, nor a liar.  And it freed me up.  So when I heard “People In Me,” I used it.  I mean, I believed it.  It’s like a child’s song.  And the compositions get better and better for me, I think.

Also, in some of the articles, I remember reading of Monk telling you not to be too perfect.  I’ve heard other musicians relate that.  Benny Golson relating almost the exact same story, of Monk talking to him and saying “make a mistake; you’re too  perfect.”

Well, Roach was the one who said “Make a mistake.”  When I told him about it, Roach said, “He means ‘make a mistake.'”  It took me a minute…a while to understand that.  But what they meant was, you try for something.  If you crack, at least you tried for it.  Don’t be so perfect.  Yeah.  Make a mistake.  Mmm-hmm.  And that’s what this form of singing is all about.  I mean, you reach for something and it works. [LAUGHS] Yes.

You made a comment in a piece that Amiri Baraka wrote about you in Jazz Times that men… Well, you came up in a generation when everybody was a rugged individualist, and you couldn’t really be anything if you weren’t.  You made a comment toward the end of the piece that women have always been in the music, but the men have been out front, and you said, “the men have a hard time keeping a standard that’s individual.”

I didn’t say that.

Oh, you’re quoted as saying that.

That’s one of the reasons I really dread sometimes interviews.  Because I didn’t tell Amiri that.

The men, I say, have like a conception, and it’s a delivery.  They cannot run away from their work.  It’s something that they have to do.  A woman can get married and have a child.  She has other options.  But he delivers this work.  It’s him.  Yes.  And they all have a style that is their own.  If you’re not an individual, you can’t stand along the masters.  No, I didn’t say that.

But you just said what you said.

Yes.

In your bands you’ve nurtured a lot of the most individualistic younger musicians, like Steve Coleman and Rodney Kendrick and Mark Cary and the band you have now.  I just wonder if you have any sense of the struggles of this generation in maintaining their individuality against the incredible magnificence and weight of the tradition they’re trying to come out of, which you may represent to them as well.

I’ve never worked with greater musicians than the ones I’m working with now, the ones I’ve been working with.  They are not lauded and they are not rich yet in money.  But I remember when all of these folks weren’t either.  It’s always been kind of a secret society.  And the musicians are as great as they ever were.  There will never be another Charlie Parker.  Or John Coltrane.  That’s what this work affords us, is individuality, and that’s who you are, and there is nobody to replace you.  But Jaz Sawyer and John Ormond… Brandon McCune I got through Betty Carter, you know.  That’s how I inherited Marc Cary.  He worked with Betty.  She was a great teacher, I believe.  She taught them a lot about the work.  About on the beat! [LAUGHS]

A strict taskmaster, right?

Yes!  And it works, too.  Mmm-hmm.  So I am benefitting from her work.

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