Jazz is the art of invention and reinvention. And nothing illustrates that more forcefully than the amazing life and artistry of singer, composer and activist Abbey Lincoln (1930-2010).

We was born Anna Marie Wooldrige in Chicago, and grew up on a farm in Michigan with 12 siblings. A self-described late bloomer, she was inspired by Billie Holliday to become a singer. “She was always a great influence on my life,” she told jazz writer Ted Panken. “She was social. And she didn’t try to prove that she had a great instrument.”

She moved to Los Angeles, and at the insistence of her manager changed her name, first to Gaby Lee, and performed with a sexy, Marilyn Monroe-type jazz chanteuse persona who sang in nightclubs, and then, to Abbey Lincoln.” “They wanted to make me a glamour type when I first got to Hollywood,” she told Amiri Baraka in JazzTimes. “I got in this movie, The Girl Can’t Help It [with Jayne Mansfield; Little Richard sang the title song]. I sang something called ‘Spread the Word.’ No, nothing happened with that. They weren’t interested in what I was singing. They were just interested in me wearing that Marilyn Monroe dress. The one she wore in Gentleman Prefer Blondes. [Max] Roach saved me from all that.”

It was jazz drummer Max Roach, one of the architects of bebop, who instill in Lincoln black pride. She then shed her come-hither image, grew hair in an afro, and delved deeper in the jazz tradition.

“I learned a lot about the music through Max Roach, she told Panken. “I didn’t know about Charlie Parker, I didn’t know who he was — or Dizzy or Monk or all these people. Working with Max, I had a chance to meet some of these folks. All of them.”

By the time she married Roach and moved to New York in the early sixties, her transformation was complete, as evidenced by her performance on several critically acclaimed classic albums, including Roach’s We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Jazz Suite and her albums as a leader during that period, including Abbey is Blue and Straight Ahead. She also starred in the films Nothing But A Man with Ivan Dixon and For Love of Ivy with Sidney Poitier in 1964 and 1968.

The next decade was challenging for the politically outspoken Lincoln. Her often turbulent marriage to Roach ended, film and recording opportunities diminished. So she toured Asia and Europe as a solo singer, and went to Africa, where inspired by the beauty of the Motherland, she took the name Aminata Moseka, and returned to New York in 1981, when the so-called Young Lions jazz renaissance was in full swing.

That rebirth of jazz marked Lincoln’s greatest artistic period. She worked with the iconoclastic alto saxophonist Steve Coleman, led a number of trios, consisting of the cream of the young crop of up-and-coming jazz stars of that era, including pianists Rodney Kendrick and Marc Cary. She signed a ten-record deal with Verve Records in 1990, and released arguably her best recordings as a singer, from The World is Falling Down to A Turtle’s Dream, with trumpeter Roy Hargrove, pianist Kenny Barron and guitarist Pat Metheny. Two of her compositions, “Throw it Away,” and “Bird Alone,” became jazz vocal standards. And her supporting role in Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues, introduced her to a new generation of moviegoers. 

By the time she died in 2010, Abbey Lincoln was loved, respected and revered by generations of musicians, actors and human rights advocates, from Maya Angelou to Les Nubians. Throughout her ascendant life she played and mastered herself: the most important instrument a jazz musician can play.

“The best thing you can do is to be a woman,” she says, “and stand before the world and speak your heart.”