NEW YORK – 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.
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.
Explaining her image makeover in 1993, Lincoln told the Associated Press, “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.
“… 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.”
In 2003, the National Endowment for the Arts recognized her with its Jazz Masters Award, the nation’s highest jazz honor.
Friedman said the world had lost “an amazing genius.”
“There are gorgeous women, there are spirited women, there are genius women – Abbey Lincoln was all of that,” she said. “You don’t find an artist that embodies this kind of level of physical beauty and cerebral magnificence in one package.”
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