Jazz Legend Abbey Lincoln was also a Poet

Jazz legend Abbey Lincoln was also a poet August 16th, 2010 11:03 am

Abbey Lincoln photo for "You Got to Pay the Band"

The late great Abbey Lincoln.

Jazz legend Abbey Lincoln was also a poet

The world of jazz and political advocacy lost one of its most gifted, prolific, and dedicated members with the death of Abbey Lincoln in New York on August 14, 2010.

Lincoln was born Anna Marie Woolridge in Chicago, Illinois, on August 6, 1930. Her multi-faceted career was a celebrated one that encompassed acting on stage as well as in major Hollywood films, and recording classic jazz albums, both with renowned giants of the music and as a solo artist. Whereas Lincoln remains well-known as a musician and actress, what many people do not know is that she was also an accomplished poet: “I’ve come to think of lyrics as poems, some of which I find melodies for and some of which I don’t,” she observed in the book Jazz and it Discontents, by Francis Davis.

But: despite her placement of lyrics and poetry the same category, Lincoln did in fact write a good deal of actual poetry, defined more by its literary qualities and structure, as opposed to lyrics defined more by, and written for, their musical qualities and purposes. Specifically, Lincoln authored a book of poetry titled In a Circle Everything is Up! As yet unpublished, the manuscript circulated among potential publishers from 2003 to 2005. The following observations are based on a reading of that manuscript.

In a Circle Everything is Up Among the terms used by the Hip Hop generation to identify a poet of some meaningful substance, skill, and lasting historical value, is the word “griot.” It denotes a keeper of ancestral memory, a guardian of community culture and values, a wise interpreter of events and dreams, and a skilled teller of useful tales. It is thus fitting to recognize Abbey Lincoln as a cultural griot soulfully at work in the pages of In A Circle Everything Is Up!

Here, we have Lincoln at her philosophically inquisitive, politically challenging, socially engaging, and spiritually empowering best. She is not one to avoid uncomfortable questions, as she demonstrates in the opening poem,

Where Are the African Gods

“Did they leave us on our journey over here?

Where are the African gods?

Will we know them when they suddenly appear?

…..the ones dismissed with voodoo.

Rock an’ roll an’ all that jazz.”

Abbey Lincoln

She waxes proverbial in short pieces where she cautions, “Beware of those bearing gifts of scapegoats,” and winks with humored solemnity at the saving power of words when observing, “A good thing I got pad and pen, with this dramatic shape I’m in.”

Abbey Lincoln album detail from Abbey Sings Abbey

In “What It is, Jazz Is,” she celebrates the chameleon presence of jazz in the world as “a holler in the night,” “an old woman late with the rent,” “a mumbled prayer to an unknown god,” and “a serpent charmed.”

The perfumed scars of male and female intimacy, the trickster dance of history and religion, and the demands of a life committed to something greater than its own immediate needs all fill the pages of this spectacular volume with illuminated wisdom, passion, strength, and love. Her rhymes are punctuated repeatedly with spirit-infused reason. Shining forever at the center of the psychic maelstrom is the ongoing discovery and evolution of Lincoln herself:

I am the love

that endures


from head to toe

shindling away

murky durky

swallowing whole

flats and sharps


demonic demons

to nothingness

reaching ever

outer and over

circumstances seeming


life I am.

Abbey Lincoln

Through her music, her writings, and her commitment to artistic and spiritual vision, Lincoln proved herself an artist of “the love that endures.”

Within the pages of In A Circle Everything Is Up! as within her life, it is also a love that triumphs.

by Aberjhani ––

Aberjhani Aberjhan author

Aberjhani Aberjhan journalist for African-American Art Examiner

author of “The River of Winged Dreams” and co-author of “Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance”