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JAZZ : Renaissance Singer : After multiple name changes and career detours, Abbey Lincoln re-emerges with new songs and a new spiritual reservoir--her own brew of Christianity, the I Ching and Egyptian cosmology

April 04, 1993|RICHARD GUILLIATT | Richard Guilliatt is a free-lance writer based in New York.

NEW YORK — Some performers keep scrapbooks of their past; Abbey Lincoln keeps history books.

In her uptown Manhattan apartment, the jazz singer emerges from the study bearing two thick, black ring binders that she sets down on the dining room table. The carefully preserved press clippings between their covers record a life that has shifted gears as dramatically as the society around it.

At first Anna Marie Wooldridge becomes Gaby Lee, a coquettish and beautiful 1950s supper club singer. Then she becomes Abbey Lincoln, the actress and jazz singer who appeared on the cover of Ebony magazine, her new name a sardonic reference to the slavery-era President.

Photographs of her marriage to jazz drummer Max Roach in 1962 show a woman with a short-cropped Afro haircut, the beginning of a civil rights awakening that would soon incorporate anguished protest records and a starring role in the film "For Love of Ivy."

By the mid-1970s, she is briefly known as Aminata Moseka, in homage to her African roots. Then the clips begin to dwindle, in conjunction with her fading recognition and the commercial decline of jazz.

"I never stayed around to get the money--I was always changing," Lincoln says in her rueful, smoky voice. She folds one elegant hand over another and composes her striking face into a determined expression. "I never wanted to be something I couldn't live with."

At 62, Abbey Lincoln remains true to that credo even as she adds several more volumes to her story. Since signing with Verve Records in 1990, Lincoln has enjoyed an artistic renaissance that has dovetailed with her emergence as a composer and arranger. Her last record, "You Gotta Pay the Band," was one of the biggest-selling jazz albums of last year and was nominated for a Grammy. A documentary on her life was broadcast on public television in late February, and her other great film performance of the civil rights era, "Nothing but a Man," was re-released in February in conjunction with Black History Month and will open at the Laemmle Monica in Santa Monica on April 30 in a new 35-millimeter print.

The term jazz diva might be overworked, but Abbey Lincoln would surely wear the mantle easily. This is a woman, after all, who once listed one of her own recordings among the essential albums she would take to a desert island. In her drug-plagued neighborhood north of Harlem, Lincoln's neatly kept apartment is an oasis of self-affirmation, recalling a prouder pre-World War II era when this stretch of St. Nicholas Avenue was called Sugar Hill. Lincoln's handsome face--with its almond-shaped eyes above a wide flash of teeth, its cascade of braids turning gray at the roots--stares down from posters and framed prints. Her colorful, figurative paintings decorate each room, and her most recent press clips are displayed on a music stand in the dining room, near her awards.

It seems superfluous to say that Lincoln lives here alone, in blissful independence. "I don't want to live in a house with a man," she says. "I want him to live in his own house and come see me sometime--when he's in a good mood." Her throaty chuckle sounds like a truck engine turning over.

As much a storyteller in person as she is in her music, Lincoln is candid in her assessment of most things, including herself. Conversation with her is a giddy ride through Egyptian cosmology, politicized anger and tearful reminiscing, with regular pit stops on the terra firma of her earthy laughter.

When Verve recently held a press luncheon for her new album, "Devil's Got Your Tongue," Lincoln sat at the head of the table in black hat and suit, sipping margaritas and informing bemused white male journalists about the joys of polygamy and the impending end of the world.

Expansiveness also characterizes her music, which draws blues, gospel and Africa into its spell. Not blessed with a great vocal range, Lincoln instead follows the lead of her early idol Billie Holiday, infusing her singing with a maximum of expressiveness. Her new record features the Staple Singers and a children's choir on several songs and African percussionists on the playful "Jungle Queen." Even its lyrical theme--the family--has broad implications. "Song for My Father" is partly about the plundering of Africa, partly about the hardships endured by her real father, Alexander Wooldridge, in rural Michigan during the Great Depression.

"I was thinking about my father, who sired 12 children and gave us his life," Lincoln explains. "We learned how to say things behind his back because we took part in our mother's arguments. . . . (So) I wrote this song and asked Dad to forgive us."

The singer's deep brown eyes roll up to the ceiling as the memory draws out tears. "My father was a hustler," she continues, producing a tissue without self-consciousness. "He worked as a handyman, he learned how to support his family. So I learned how to be like that."

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