Abbey Lincoln, a jazz singer and songwriter known for her phrasing, emotion and uncompromising style, died Saturday in New York at age 80.
She had been declining in health for the past year. Her death was confirmed by friend and filmmaker Carol Friedman, who has been working on a documentary on Lincoln’s life.
Born Anna Marie Wooldridge in 1930, Lincoln was the daughter of a handyman and grew up with 11 brothers and sisters in rural Calvin Center, Mich.
She discovered music early, teaching herself piano and singing in music and school.
Lincoln made records and acted in films in the 1950s and ’60s, then saw her career surge again in the 1990s when she found new voice as a songwriter.
Over her long career, Lincoln acted with Sidney Poitier and collaborated in music with the drummer Max Roach, whom she married in 1962 and later divorced.
In later years, she had chart-topping albums with You Gotta Pay the Band, which she recorded with Stan Getz, and Devil’s Got Your Tongue, in which she rebuked some rappers, comics and filmmakers for profiting from the denigration of black culture.
As a young woman, Lincoln made a splash not only because of her voice, but her beauty.
Early album covers featured her in slinky dresses, and she appeared in a Jayne Mansfield movie wearing the dress worn by Marilyn Monroe in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”
But after falling under Roach’s influence, Lincoln turned her back on that image, casting herself instead as a civil rights advocate, dressing in African-inspired clothing and hairstyles, and making music with a political tone.
Her 1960 collaboration with Roach and Oscar Brown Jr., We Insist! (Freedom Now Suite), was a testament against racism.
“This dress was more important than I was. People in the audience were looking at my exposed breasts and the shape of my body, and it didn’t have nothing to do with the music,” she said, explaining her image makeover in 1993 to The Associated Press.
“It wasn’t a dream of mine to be a star, so Max came along at the right time to help save me from myself. Otherwise, I would have become an alcoholic and unhappy,” she said.
In 2003, the National Endowment for the Arts recognized her with its Jazz Masters Award, the nation’s highest jazz honor.
“I’ve done what I please, told people to go bug off and exercised my independence,” Lincoln told the AP in 1993.
There will be no formal funeral, instead a celebration of Life & Memorial will be planned in approximately one month’s time. Details and dates to be announced.
The family has suggested that donations can be made in her honor to the Jazz Foundation of America. “Saving jazz and blues … one musician at a time”
(The Associated Press contributed to this report)