Abbey Lincoln: A Woman Speaking Her Mind

Being a Singer AND a Composer

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: Do you use the word “diva”?

ABBEY LINCOLN: No. It’s just I don’t know what it means. I’m a singer. I’m an artist. I’m not a diva.

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: Do you think as a vocalist it is more difficult for people to think of you as a composer?

ABBEY LINCOLN: I don’t care if they think of me as a composer or not! My producer thinks of me as a composer. [laughs] Jean-Philippe Allard, probably the greatest man I ever met on the planet.

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: And he’s the one…

ABBEY LINCOLN: Who helped—yeah, Jean-Philippe Allard, he’s French. Doesn’t try to tell me what to do, he helps me to do what I do. When he called me the first time, he said, “Abbey, what do you want to do?” And so he has blessed my life. That’s why I have all these albums. And it’s why I’m popular, because I’m being marketed by PolyGram and Verve. There’s a bunch of names now—Universal.

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: Universal, Verve, the Universal Group.

ABBEY LINCOLN: Yeah. Yeah.

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: I asked because when I wrote the piece on you for the New York Times and when Nat Hentoff wrote the companion piece, our whole, all of our writing was to talk about you as a composer.

ABBEY LINCOLN: It was wonderful.

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: But when the review ran a few days later, the headline on it was “Singer Abbey Lincoln”!

ABBEY LINCOLN: Yeah, I’m a singer though.

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: I know.

ABBEY LINCOLN: I’m glad they know that I’m a singer. Some singers write their own songs, some of ‘em don’t. Bob Dylan is a great composer. So they just say Bob Dylan; everybody knows who he is. Yeah.

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: Although there are some within the music we call jazz who would not…

ABBEY LINCOLN: He’s not what you would call a great singer. You know what I mean? He’s a great composer and lyricist, Bob Dylan is, as far as I’m concerned. He writes about the real world. “Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me. I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to. Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man play a song for me. In the jingle-jangle morning I’ll come following you.” I don’t know what the jingle-jangle morning is, but I have a pretty good idea. It’s one of the greatest songs I’ve ever heard to describe a world we’re living in.

[recorded on "Who Used to Dance"]

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: Do you think that songwriting has helped your longevity as a performing artist?

ABBEY LINCOLN: Probably. But I’m a lot more than just a singer. I’m a personality. And I’m strong and… You have to help people to kill you, you know. You have bad habits. You can die young here. Most people die of bad habits. I believe that if you’re blessed to have this work, then you should be experienced in spirituality and it should make you strong and great.

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: Would you still be singing if you were singing standards?

ABBEY LINCOLN: I don’t know anything about that. It’s not who I am. I’m an actress. And I’m a woman. More than anything I’m female. Female of the species. Yeah.

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: Do you think women have a role as the storytellers, as the griots?

ABBEY LINCOLN: Of course they do.

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: Why is it the women?

ABBEY LINCOLN: It’s not the women or the men; it’s the women and the men.

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: Okay.

ABBEY LINCOLN: Some men are griots and some women are griots. Depends on where your head is. What you want to do. That’s a picture of Billie Holiday up there against the wall next to my father’s paintings—at the piano. I didn’t know she played the piano. She looks just like my sister, like my big sister. She wrote “God Bless the Child(‘s got his own)” and “(Hush now,) Don’t Explain.” I come from her. She comes from Bessie Smith. Bessie Smith wrote this song and I’ve repeated it more than once. “I’m going up on Black Mountain with my razor and my gun. I’m gonna shoot him if he stands still and cut him if he runs.” [laughs] Yeah!

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: It’s interesting to me to see that when Billie wrote, she started with the blues. Which kind of goes back to that.

ABBEY LINCOLN: She comes from…

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: Bessie.

ABBEY LINCOLN: No, she does come from Bessie, but she got her start with Louie Armstrong. In the book that she wrote [Lady Sings the Blues], she worked in brothels and cleaned up after the prostitutes and that’s where she heard Louie Armstrong. They called them jazz houses. Jass houses. Because it’s the only place they played the music then, in environments such as that. Yeah, she comes from Louis Armstrong.

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: And when you started to write, the first thing you wrote lyrics to was a blues…

ABBEY LINCOLN: No, it wasn’t. I wrote a child’s song called “People in Me.”

LARA PELLEGRINELLI: No, I mean the first lyrics that you wrote for “Let Up.”

ABBEY LINCOLN: “Let Up.” Mmmhmm. I’m not really overwhelmed by the blues. They talk a lot about the blues, but I’m a ballad—I write. “The Music is the Magic” is like a chant. It’s not the blues though.

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