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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.]
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