My Article on Abbey Lincoln's Tribute in NYC on 10/1/10 (plus a poem)

Tribute For Abbey Lincoln             October 1st, 2010


Abyssinian Baptist Church         132 Odell Clark Place          New York City



            It was Friday around 4:00pm, so traffic was beginning to crawl. I entered the Lincoln Tunnel with hundreds of other cars, police giving white gloved orders…stop/go/here/there…etc.


            I went thru the tunnel and made an idiot turn down 36th street with stopped traffic absolutely. It was now about 5:15pm and I was nowhere near the West Side Highway, which would take me uptown to 125 st. where I would make my way even further uptown to 138th street, which was where the Abyssinian Church is.


            It had been raining off and on, the streets were slick, with shiny oil spill puddles making black rainbows with solid blue overtones. I finally backtracked and  went up 11th Ave. and made it to the West Side Highway. Traveling north the sun started to really shine, to my left, the Hudson river was rippling, dancing and the water was moving in 6 inch waves back and forth like 1000 sweaty horses.


            The sky was beginning to open up, with deep blue cloudy streaks blazing thru a backround of bright silvery golden sunlight. At this point, it was around 6pm and I started crosstown on 125th street, made a left onto Broadway and went up to 140th street. As I went crosstown past City College, I looked up to the sky and saw a huge rainbow…..


            This rainbow was all across the east side of Harlem, starting high up in the sky, with big wide streaky splashes of color. I found a parking spot, dusk was upon me, it was about 6:15pm and I walked in the church.


            Most everyone was already seated, 2 smiling ladies in white cotton shirts and black skirts gave me a choice to sit in the upper rows or on the ground floor. I asked for 2 programs and explained one was for my friend who wanted to be there, but couldn’t make it. I choose the upper rows and found a seat right in the middle of the church.


            My friend asked me to tell her everything that happened, so she could feel it…  what follows is my attempt. Before I  speak on the beauty and love that filled the church, I suppose it fair to say, that next to Sarah Vaughn, Abbey Lincoln was, on a very deep soul level, my favorite singer. Her voice to me was like a saxophone, it was golden, full of emotion and spoke of things underneath the text. A bright searing snap of lyric could have 10 meanings when she sang it and each time you listened to it, you somehow got a more enlightened view of the story she sang about.

In the early years, there was Hollywood, there were strings, there were red gowns, there were standard songs to sing. Then came Max Roach and history was made. My first introduction to Abbey was “The Freedom Now Suite”, at that time I didn’t know about the early years. I listened to the Freedom Now Suite so many times, it wore a groove in my heart.


In later years, I would go hear her in the clubs in NY, where she would drink milk and scotch. I took a master class with her, Sheila Jordan, Frank Gant, Harold Maybern and Jamil Nasser sponsored by Cobi Narita. As time went by Abbey wrote songs that really changed the landscape of jazz vocals. Deeply personal, spiritual in nature and full of poetic imagery…. she was just all that…    


I walked in, sat down and her producer of many years, Jean Phillipe-Allard was speaking. Since I had come in a few minutes late, it seemed the tribute had also started a little late. The officiating minister was the Rev. Calvin Butts the lll, and I supposed that he had already made some introductions, said a few words and Jean Phillipe had just begun. Mr. Phillipe-Allard spoke about Ms. Lincoln with great care. So proud that was he able to bring her musical vision to life and so honored that the music she created has had such a deep impact on jazz culture around the world. He talked about how Abbey always felt life so strongly, she would laugh one minute, then cry the next.  He expressed his dedication and devotion to her from the moment they agreed to work together.


After he spoke, Rev. Butts introduced the Abbey Lincoln Band, with Marc Cary, Jaz Sawyer, Michael Bowie. They played an instrumental version of “Throw It Away”, it was, as they say…. “awesome”.


At this point I was getting accustomed to the room and my eyes focused on the middle of the stage on the floor, where I saw Abbey’s Big Black Hat! It was resting on top of a box that looked kind of green and gilded. I thought, there must be a story to this box, but I don’t know what it is! No one explained it to me either, or perhaps I had missed an anecdote when Rev Butts began the tribute? Either way, I still don’t know, but it was very powerful just seeing that hat!


Next to speak was Abbey’s brother David Woolridge. He thanked everyone in the church for being there, for loving Abbey and for loving her music. He said, and of course I’m paraphrasing here, that there is an expression that “life is in the moment, and Abbey was such a strong personality that even if you disagreed with her about anything (or everything) she vigorously defended her right to think what she wanted and be who she was. When she took the stage, she believed in what she was singing, she was afraid of what she was singing, she sang about what was meaningful to her and of what she observed about life. Her body of work is a wonderful contribution to music and life and she always had a statement to make, whether you agreed with her or not”.


At this point, after a warm applause from the audience, Rev Betts introduces Wendy Oxenhorn. Wendy is Director of the Jazz Foundation, she has been involved in the jazz community helping elders and many members of the community who have problems and many musicians who had difficulty after Hurricane Katrina. Ms. Oxenhorn starts out saying that only allows herself to cry once a year. But Abbey’s transition was very hard for her. She found herself crying in the shower and really had to collect herself. She knows she gets attached to artists in her care, but she really wasn’t prepared when Abbey passed. She thanked David Woolridge for everything he did to make Abbey comfortable and safe. She thanked Jill Newman for her undivided devotion to Abbey and she thanked the Reverend Calvin Butts for opening up his church to everyone in attendance. She said she loves Rev. Butts, the man, the church and she can always promise him a few sinners, which made the church ripple with quiet laughter. She said that “….we will miss her.” and “…..the universe will miss her as much as we do”. She then mentioned many names, most of whom I did not catch and couldn’t write down.


Next, Mr. Rodney Kendrick sat down with the piano and improvised on two songs, Nature Boy and Blue Monk. It was meditative, minor, melodically trancelike with long soft passages and deeply felt blues. It was a perfect match between emotion and intellect and settled the church into very peaceful thoughts.


Each artist that performed or spoke, brought with them the understanding of the “Abbey Lincoln Vibe”. Thoughtful. Challenging. Speaking Truthfully. Mirroring Reality. Staying Grounded. The next person to sing was Maggie Brown, the daughter of the great Oscar Brown Jr. from Chicago and a true singer/musician/songwriter. She sang “When I’m Called Home”, Abbey’s poignant star bangled banner about dying. At the end, she even snuck in some of Abbey’s vocalisms…. The growling, bright eyed sounds that punctuated so many of her songs.


Next, Randy Weston sat down with the piano and played “African Lady”. With a brief introduction where he mentioned Max Roach and Abbey and dedicated the piece for her. It sounded amazing.  Words can’t explain……… All over the piano…. Harmony. Melody. Rhythm. Amazing.


At this point, it must have been around an hour and half that everyone had been sitting in rapt attention. No one left, no one moved… There were a few kids acting up… I actually wrote this poem in poetic response a 2 ½ year little boy who was very boisterous…


kids….. those little beasts


kids those little beasts

stirring up trouble


when their

supposed to be quiet




disturbing the peace

maybe their internal


is on overdrive

maybe they are tired

maybe they are hungry

maybe they’ve had enuf

of whatever is

going on


maybe they just

live between

the short molecular cycles

we adults

don’t notice anymore



little beasts

get to scream and shout

then get picked up

and taken away


wouldn’t we all like

to scream


act out

when we don’t agree

with what’s going on?


then we can just

pick up

and go away…



Anyway,  I digress…. Let’s go to Mr. George Wein.


            George Wein approached the podium very slowly. He will be 85 in a week or so as of this writing  (October 4th, 2010). He bantered a bit with Rev. Butts, and began to wistfully, joyfully relate a long history with Abbey Lincoln. He met Abbey in the mid to late 50’s in Boston. She was gorgeous, looked like a beauty queen and he said “she could have a BIG STAR!.... Could have made a lot of money….!  But… she didn’t want to be something that she wasn’t. Around the same time Abbey met Max Roach. Max had just lost Clifford Brown and they became inseparable. Abbey fulfilled a need for Max because he was lost without Clifford. Mr. Wein brought Max and Abbey to Japan to do the “Freedom Now Suite”. He said the audiences in Japan went crazy for the music. It was the 1st time they had ever experienced African Americans expressing such emotion, he said it was extraordinary. He went on to speak about an awards evening about 2 years ago, where he and Abbey were being honored. He saw her across the room and before he get over to her, she was hugging him and it was such a delicious hug he still feels it.


            After Mr. Wein a beautiful photographic montage played with Abbey singing “What Are You Doing The Rest of Your Life”. Photos by Carol Friedman. Very personal, very loving.


            The next performers are James Spaulding, flute and George Cables, piano. Spaulding relates a story about how he was called  to play a gig with Freddie Hubbard, Max Roach, Kirk Lightsey and Jimmy Merritt. In the back waiting to join the band, was Abbey Lincoln….. He was just beside himself he was so excited. He smiles and explains that first, he was going to play another song, but then he started to go thru Abbey music and he chose Abbeys tune “Love Is Made”. Before he plays it, he narrates the lyric over the melody and chord changes played by Mr. Cables. He speaks softly with great intention and then, he plays the melody. If you know the tune, you sing it in your head while he improvises.  It’s beautiful, Spaulding ends the tune on very high notes and it resounds through out the church.


            At this point, there has been such beauty and love expressed everyone is relaxed and alert. Rev. Butts relates a story about the next guest performer. He begins by saying he rarely lets someone he doesn’t know step up to the pulpit and address the congregation. One day, a young lady came up to sing on the good word of a fellow Reverend and Rev. Butts gave his blessing. It turned out, the singer sang so movingly, there was a 3 minute standing ovation. The singer was Dee Dee Bridgewater. Ms. Bridgewater said that she had been saved, and that she believed Abbey Lincoln was lit up by grace. She said that she had never sung one a Abbeys songs, but she is reconsidering. She had chosen to sing Abbey’s composition “It’s Supposed To Be Love” and invited Maggie Brown to join her in duet. They sang accapella with perfect musicianship and a great feeling of dramatic joy.  The lyrics are about domestic abuse and are very moving. Everyone in the church responds with great heart.


            After shuffling in seats and some movement from the pews, things settle down again and Cecil Taylor takes the piano. He drifts in and out of pianistic clusters, sound dreams, he is all over the piano, rolling and thundering, gracefully bantering with textures, timbres and diamond sky imagery. He is so involved, Maggie Brown comes over and wispers something to him and he closes his piece.


            Again the reshuffling, the resituating, a few more people have to leave. It’s about 7:50pm. Rev. Butts introduces Miss Ruby Dee and as she walks to the microphone, she receives a standing ovation. Part preacher, part seer, part actress, part poet, all communicator…. she proceeds with a strong voice in a tiny frame.

“Life is one of the most incredible experiences we will ever have” she says, and “…we don’t even know who we are as a species, we are still becoming the greatness of who we already are…” She is warm, philosophical and spiritual all at the same time, commenting that she knows Abbey is here with us tonite and is in a really good place because look at all these people who love her! Again, a standing ovation and then she says now Abbey is one of “Ozzie’s Posse”.


            After that standing ovation, Cobi Narita, the longtime jazz supporter, mentor to so many musicians, the promoter and founder of The Jazz Coalition and friend of Abbey Lincoln, walked slowly to the microphone and began her statement for Abbey. Reading from her notes so she wouldn’t ramble, as she said so jokingly, she reminisced lovingly thru tears about Abbey, her friend, her inspiration and fellow jazz encourager. She mentioned that Abbey had performed over 20 times at the Jazz Coalition in NYC, had always been there for her when she was producing her many events and shows and had given wonderful master classes (one of which, I had attended).    


            As the evening draws to a close, the last person to perform is Avery Brooks. He came out and spoke briefly. He said: “I’ve lived long enough to know about light, I know what sunlight is…” “When someone walks in the room and changes the light….”   The rest I couldn’t hear. The one thing he said... Abbey said..... was:

“I am not going to end up on the junk pile of humanity”. Then he sat down with the piano and played “Throw It Away” in a slow, deliberate manner in gospel fashion,  blues fashion,  jazz fashion, and singing with an deeply operatic improvising style. His performance was warmly received and the room just unfolded.


            Closing remarks were made by Rev. Calvin Butts, thanking all who attended and bringing to a close an evening in tribute of one of America’s greatest African American Women. Singer, painter, composer, civil rights activist, poet and jazz woman, Aminita Moseka Abbey Lincoln.


 Rev. Butts invited everyone who was there to come back any Sunday, there was a collective chuckle from the congregation.


And then, a short film tribute by Gabriella Morandi, Francesco Pini and Robert W. Richards.   The film footage is marvelous. I can’t remember which film segment explained what book Abbey Lincoln was reading when she alluded to “the magic book” which inspired her to write the lyrics for “Throw It Away”. Was it Carol Friedmans film footage or this one? I always wondered what book she was reading…. either way she said it was the “I Ching”.


            By this time of course, it was dark, it was over, the hat and the box were whisked away, the night was upon us, the rainbow was gone. Ms. Abbey Lincoln’s tribute was truly extraordinary, just like her. 


Sarah James    10.4.10

© 2010 Sarah James