Jazz icon, composer, lyricist and performer Abbey Lincoln died last year at age 80. Still, her versatile talents, her passion for justice and her unique sound live on in her music and her films.
To pay tribute to Lincoln's life and music, three of the most influential jazz divas in the country are convening in Washington, D.C., Friday night for the annual Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival at the Kennedy Center. Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dianne Reeves and Cassandra Wilson will interpret some of Abbey Lincoln's most beloved songs in concert. Bridgewater, host of NPR's JazzSet With Dee Dee Bridgewater, helped organize the tribute.
"It's been a dream of mine to have Dianne and Cassandra and I on the same stage to show sisterhood and a kind of solidarity," Bridgewater says. "And also, Abbey and I had spoken when she was sick, and she expressed to me that she wanted me to make sure her music was carried on after she passed away. And I promised her that I would. So this is part of that promise."
All three vocalists profess a great love and respect for Abbey Lincoln, and all enjoyed professional relationships with her. Bridgewater and Reeves joined Tell Me More host Michel Martin at NPR headquarters before the show to talk about Lincoln and her music. (Wilson was sick and couldn't attend.)
"[Lincoln] got in touch with her ancestors," Reeves says. "And when she got in touch with them, she responded and never stopped."
On Learning Abbey Lincoln's Repertoire
Bridgewater: "She, I think, is probably one of our most unrecognized, prolific songwriters. She really has a perspective about words, grammar, vocabulary, wordplay that I find very uncanny. I found for this project, I've had difficulty to commit a lot of the lyrics to memory."
Reeves: "I understand that. You have to get into her way, because — there's one song that I'm doing ["It's Supposed to Be Love"] that for some reason, the first verse of the song is just very difficult ... I mean, I have it. But it's funny, because it's the way that she says it and the words that she uses. And the interesting thing: The words that she uses are just kind of like, 'first thought.' That's why they work."
Bridgewater (later): "I don't know about you, Dianne, but I have spent days on one song. Just days, trying to get what she's saying and to really understand the story so that I can link the lyric together."
On Abbey Lincoln's Mentorship
Bridgewater: "But she mentored. You know, on a lot of her albums, she's invited other vocalists to perform with her. And I remember the first time when I wanted us to do something, and Cassandra took it upon herself — she felt that we should honor Abbey. And Abbey said, 'I'm not dead yet.' She said, 'I'm not dead yet. You honor me when I'm gone.' And she said, 'But we can do a show where each of us mentors and brings somebody else to the stage. I'll do that.' "
[See also: a 1984 Abbey Lincoln performance, featuring backup singer Cassandra Wilson, recorded by WBGO and aired on JazzSet.]
MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FREEDOM DAY")
ABBEY LINCOLN: (Singing) Whisper, listen. Whisper, listen. Whisper, say we are free. Rumors flyin', must be lyin', can it really be? Can't conceive it, can't believe it, but that's what they say. Slave no longer, slave no longer, this is Freedom Day. Freedom Day. It's Freedom Day. Throw those shackle and chains away. Everybody that I see says it's really true, we're free.
MARTIN: That was "Freedom Day" from the 1960 album "We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite." That is the voice of the legendary jazz icon, composer, lyricist, performer Abbey Lincoln. Abbey Lincoln died last year at the age of 80. Still, her versatile talent, her passion for justice and most of all, her unique sound lives forever in her music and in her films.
To pay tribute to Lincoln's life and music, three of the most influential jazz divas in the country are convening in Washington, D.C. tonight for the annual Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival at the Kennedy Center, where they will interpret some of Abbey Lincoln's most beloved songs.
Joining us today are two of these amazing Grammy award-winning jazz vocalists, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Dianne Reeves. And Dee Dee Bridgewater is also the host of NPR's Jazz Set with Dee Dee Bridgewater from NPR Music. I don't know how we're going to contain all this fabulousness in one place.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: But we are going to try. Welcome.
DEE DEE BRIDGEWATER: Thank you. Glad to be here.
DIANNE REEVES: Thank you. Very happy, Michel.
MARTIN: Dee Dee Bridgewater, I understand it was your idea to bring this group together. Do I have that right?
BRIDGEWATER: Yeah. Yeah. It's been a dream of mine to have Dianne and Cassandra and I on the same stage to show sisterhood and a kind of solidarity and...
BRIDGEWATER: Yes. And, also, Abbey and I had spoken while she was sick and she expressed to me that she wanted me to make sure that her music was carried on after she passed away and I promised her that I would, so this is part of that promise.
MARTIN: For those who are not familiar with Abbey Lincoln, hard to imagine, but can you just tell us a little about Abbey Lincoln? How did Anna Marie Wooldridge become Abbey Lincoln?
BRIDGEWATER: I'll defer to Dianne.
REEVES: Well, you know, she...
REEVES: I understand she started out singing in California and wasn't even singing jazz. And later on, she happened to meet Max Roach, who turned her on to the music and from there it's been an amazing history because she got in touch with her ancestors. And when she got in touch with them, she responded and never stopped.
MARTIN: And, Dee Dee Bridgewater, one of the things about Abbey Lincoln is that she seemed to be interested in all forms of creativity.
MARTIN: I mean, she made her own clothes, she made dolls, I understand.
BRIDGEWATER: Yes she did.
MARTIN: She was in films.
BRIDGEWATER: She was an amazing actress and Abbey was a woman who was just very concerned with everything around her. And oftentimes when I would speak to her, she was in an angry space because she had just gotten so disgusted with the world and with the way that social events were going.
And she was particularly angry at the time that I was doing the Red Earth project, my Malian journey. She was supposed to be a part of that with me. And she told me to go on to Mali and deal with the Africans and come back and let her know and she would make her decision when I got back.
So when I got back I called her and I said, OK, Abbey, I went, I recorded and I said, you know, I'm just waiting on you. And she says, I'm not going to be on it, Dee Dee. She said, our African ancestors sold us into slavery. And I have decided I don't want to be around them. I don't want to be a part of this. And, I mean, that's how Abbey was. And I just had to say OK.
She, I think, is probably one of our most unrecognized, prolific songwriters. She really has a perspective about words, grammar, vocabulary, wordplay that I find very uncanny. I found for this project I've had difficulty to commit a lot of the lyrics to memory.
REEVES: Mm-hmm. I understand that.
BRIDGEWATER: You do?
REEVES: You have to get into her way.
REEVES: Because there's one song that I'm doing that for some reason the first verse of the song is just very difficult.
MARTIN: Is it "Bird Alone?"
BRIDGEWATER: No, no, no.
REEVES: No, no. No. "And It's Supposed To Be Love." I mean I have it. But it's funny because it's the way that she says it and the words that she uses. And the interesting thing, the words that she uses are just kind of like first thought.
REEVES: That is why they work.
MARTIN: Can I just play a little bit of "Bird Alone" since...
MARTIN: Just to give people a sense of what we're talking about.
MARTIN: As to the way she used language. It's from her 2007 album "Abbey Sings Abbey." It originally appeared on her 1991 album "You Gotta Pay The Band." Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "BIRD ALONE")
LINCOLN: (Singing) Bird alone, flying high. Flying through a clouded sky. Sending mournful soulful sounds. Soaring over troubled grounds. Bird alone with no mate. Turning corners, tempting fate. Flying circles in the air. Are you on your way somewhere?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BRIDGEWATER: There we go, the three of us. But look at that, that song. It's a parody of birds. She's talking about birds but it's also a bird.
BRIDGEWATER: And that's what I'm talking about. So she just has this very uncanny way of writing a lyric. And as Dianne said, you have to inhabit the song. And I don't know for you Dianne, but I have spent days on one song. Just days...
REEVES: Mm-hmm. Understand.
BRIDGEWATER: ...trying to get to what she's saying and to really understand the story so that I can link the lyric together.
MARTIN: You know, what, it strikes me that it's a little bit like the Gospels in a sense that the story itself is simple. But as you unpeel the layers of meaning it becomes very complicated.
BRIDGEWATER: Well, yeah, and the words have to be there the way she says it. You know, like she says flying through a clouded sky, I recorded as flying through a cloudy sky and she corrected me and she said clouded. I was like okay, I got you. And it's a different picture when you say that because one that you're experiencing, the other is the one you're observing. She's observing this thing - this bird.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with jazz divas Dee Dee Bridgewater and Dianne Reeves. They, along with Cassandra Wilson, will be honoring the legendary jazz icon Abbey Lincoln tonight as part of the annual Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival at the Kennedy Center. And they are going to interpret some of Lincoln's most loved songs in a special tribute performance.
So how did you go about choosing, Dee Dee, how did you choose what you wanted to do, what you wanted to sing?
BRIDGEWATER: Oh, well, I deferred to my sisters. I let them choose first. So Dianne picked her songs, Cassandra picked hers and then I took from what was left. Of course, there were, you know, they both...
REEVES: There's a lot.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BRIDGEWATER: There's a whole lot. But, you know, they're still a lot to, it's still a lot, you know. And I remember when we saw each other when we were doing the Monk competition and we were saying, you know, we were talking about Freedom, Freedom Days.
REEVES: Yeah. Freedom Days.
BRIDGEWATER: And doing that as an ensemble. Because that song has been in all of our lives.
BRIDGEWATER: You know, all of us have sung that. Everybody that is involved in this had such a great love and respect for her.
REEVES: Yeah, and a relationship.
BRIDGEWATER: Yeah. And so the music is coming - I mean I'm even surprised at the things that I selected because I selected something that was really tragic.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BRIDGEWATER: You know, a song that's - "Supposed To Be Love" is like it's a very tragic song.
REEVES: It is.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "AND IT'S SUPPOSED TO BE LOVE")
LINCOLN: (Singing) Body slam you to the ground, messaging a chill. Curses make the head go 'round, brings a certain thrill. Send you to another world, mesmerize your brain. It's the jewel of a pearl. Makes you go insane. And it's supposed to be love. Yes. It's supposed to be love.
BRIDGEWATER: And if you're not listening to the words you'd be dancing and laughing and singing and, you know, until you listen to those words and you're going oh, my God. And the thing that I love about it is that's how this particular situation will come up on you. You know, you won't know that it's happening. You'll be singing and living and laughing and stuff and then, you know, at night getting your behind kicked, you know?
REEVES: I have that with one of the songs that I'm singing, which was not the song that I had wanted to sing, but that's very interesting. I didn't realize it until yesterday when I listened to the album "Holy Earth." I'm doing "Another World." That song I'm telling you, I don't know why, makes me break down.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "ANOTHER WORLD")
LINCOLN: (Singing) Another world is waiting for its own. Another time, another world, another world.
REEVES: I feel like it's talking about, you know, another world that we can find on this earth, but then I'm wondering if Abbey was thinking about another world where she was going to be one day. And it always makes me think about Abbey passing and I hope...
BRIDGEWATER: She had a - she stood between two worlds, though. She did.
REEVES: Always. That's true.
BRIDGEWATER: And that was the part of her that was so sensitive because she stood between - she was on this plane and she was in a spirit place.
MARTIN: Can I ask, was she generous with other performers? Did she like the collaborative process? Did she...
REEVES: I think yes and no. I think she liked it with instrumentalists.
BRIDGEWATER: Well, but she mentored.
BRIDGEWATER: You know, on a lot of her albums she's invited other vocalists to perform with her. And I remember the first time when I wanted us to do something and Cassandra took it upon herself, she felt that we should honor Abbey. And Abbey said I'm not dead yet.
BRIDGEWATER: She said I am not dead yet. You honor me when I'm gone.
BRIDGEWATER: And she said but we can do a show where each of us mentors and brings somebody else to the stage. I'll do that.
MARTIN: Well, to that point, since Cassandra Wilson will be part of the event but wasn't able to join us today, I just want to play a little something that we have...
MARTIN: On Jazz Set, Dee Dee Bridgewater, you played a 1984 performance of Abbey Lincoln from the Peppermint Lounge.
MARTIN: A club in Orange, New Jersey. It was taped by WBGO in Newark some 24 years ago. We were all babies. We weren't even thinking about it. But that day she had some special guests. And I just, we've done a little bit of editing just for the sake of time, but I'm just going to play it.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
LINCOLN: We'd like to ask Miss Bemshi Schire and Miss Cassandra Wilson to come up and join us. Actually, this is the title song to an album recently released on Enja Records, "Talking to the Sun."
(Singing) He brings the mimics of love, the faces that I wear. His face is like a diamond and it's shining everywhere. He is the central figure and he makes the world grow bigger just because he is the early rising sun. Just because he is the early rising sun. That is ooooh.
MARTIN: So among your other gifts you're a detective.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MARTIN: I found this.
BRIDGEWATER: Yeah. Yeah. We aired that show not too long after Abbey passed last year. So that was the first time that I had heard it. But that gives you an example of the mentoring thing that was very, very important to her. She felt that we have to pass our knowledge, our wisdom on to the younger generation and there you have a perfect example.
MARTIN: Well, it's been such a treat to visit with both of you. Thank you both so much for taking the time, especially as you're getting ready for this special performance. But before I let you go, I did want to ask what each of you is working on right now apart from this wonderful project. What are you excited about? What are you - anything, any current projects you want to talk about? Anything?
REEVES: Well, I'm in the process of writing right now. I'm going to go into the studio in September. Well, between August, September and October, which I'm excited that I have a long period of time to do it. So I'm going to do something totally different. I don't usually really talk specifically about the projects but I'm excited about it.
MARTIN: Okay, well if you're excited we're excited, Dianne Reeves.
REEVES: Thank you.
MARTIN: Dee Dee, what are you working on, anything, what's making you excited right now? What's making you happy?
BRIDGEWATER: I am in the process of producing a young trumpeter. He is the grandson of Doc Cheatham. His name is Theo Croker. He's got an amazing sound, just a wonderful sound. I have a very deep fondness for the trumpet. My father was a trumpet player. My first husband was a trumpet player. I had a couple of boyfriends who were trumpet players. I think of my voice as a trumpet. But I'm very, very excited about his compositions, his arranging abilities. And I'm trying to put my money where my mouth is and nurture young artists that I believe in. That's what I'm doing right now, taking a break from me.
REEVES: Good thing.
MARTIN: Well, thank you for taking a break to come and speak with us. We so appreciate it. And we played two songs that will be performed by, I think we played, I think Cassandra Wilson is going to play that song we just played a little bit of. Is she going to sing that, I think, in the performance? I'm not sure.
BRIDGEWATER: Yeah, I think so. I think so.
REEVES: She is.
MARTIN: And you told us one of the things that you're going to deliver. So I think we're going to go out on a song that I think - Miss Bridgewater, you're going to perform "The Music is the Magic"? Is that what you're going to perform?
MARTIN: Okay. So we're going to go out on that. Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dianne Reeves, two of the world's most celebrated jazz divas were kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studio ahead of their Kennedy Center performance, along with Cassandra Wilson in tribute to the legendary singer and composer Abbey Lincoln. It's part of the annual Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival. My divas, thank you so much for joining us.
REEVES: Thank you.
BRIDGEWATER: You're so welcome.
REEVES: Thank you. Take care, Michel.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "THE MUSIC IS THE MAGIC")
LINCOLN: (Singing) The music is the magic of a secret world, a world that is always...
MARTIN: If you want to listen to some of the performances from the Kennedy Center Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival, tune into Jazz Set on your local NPR station.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "THE MUSIC IS THE MAGIC")
LINCOLN: (Singing) It's a world that is always within.
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more on Monday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.