I knew who Abbey Lincoln was before I invited the legendary Max Roach to my Prairie Shores apartment for dinner in 1973. I’d seen and appreciated her performance as Josie in the movie, Nothing But A Man, which had come out nine years earlier. Although in reality, that was Ivan Dixon’s movie, not hers. I’d seen her with Sidney Poitier five years earlier in For the Love of Ivy, but she hadn’t quite registered because, in today’s parlance, it was too much of a chick flick for the younger me.
Her name had resonance, for reasons I couldn’t empirically explain.
I knew that she was a renowned jazz singer but I would have been hard pressed to name what she had sung. And although Roach was at my home assisting me in putting together what would be the first of the short-lived Ebony Black Music Poll, he hadn’t gotten around to mentioning her at all.
He talked about his life and fabled three-decades long career as a jazz percussionist. He talked about playing with Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and Sonny Rollins.
He told me about that rainy night in 1956, when band members Clifford Brown and Richie Powell were killed in a car crash on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The two were being driven from Philadelphia to Chicago by Powell's wife, Nancy, in the quintet’s car caravan. Roach told me that Powell and Brown had violated the code of never letting a woman drive when they were on the road.
He didn’t tell me that in 1960 he and Lincoln had recorded, We Insist!--Freedom Now, the landmark civil rights jazz song. I think he thought I should have known. I don’t think it occurred to him that I was just becoming a teenager when their collaboration went vinyl.
I don’t remember if Roach told me, as we sat in my Southside Chicago apartment, that she was from the Windy City. I do remember that Roach’s date that night was this beautiful, willowy woman who was about my age. She said she was a model who boasted that she maintained her flawless dark skin by drinking her own urine, which she claimed had some sort of cleansing effect.
As you might imagine, her sharing her beauty secret was a conversation stopper. But not for long. Abbey Lincoln took charge. Roach began talking about her and what she meant to his life. He didn’t go into a great deal of detail about their working together. Instead he talked about their lives together.
I can still hear the love and faint pain in his voice as he talked about Abbey Lincoln. And that’s how I remember him referring to her. Not as Abbey, but as Abbey Lincoln.
At the beginning of their eight-year marriage, Roach told me that he was a heroin addict. Lincoln had supported him and nurtured him through withdrawal and off the drug. He said he then became an alcoholic. Once again, Lincoln stood by her man, helping him through that crisis.
After that, he said she had nothing left so she left him. Roach spoke of his love and appreciation for his ex-wife even as the young, gorgeous model listened in. And even back then, all I could think about was what a strong, amazing woman Abbey Lincoln was.
When I learned of her death on Saturday, I could have thought about her jazz recordings and compositions or her roles in those two 1960s movies or her 1990s role as Denzel Washington’s mother in Mo’ Better Blues, but I didn’t.
I thought about how sorry I had been when I heard of Roach’s death three years ago and about what he’d shared with me about Abbey Lincoln. I’m sorry I never met her in person but thanks to her ex-husband’s stories about her, I know that we lost a very special woman.