The mystery of Abbey Lincoln

I believe in the observation of the great American poet, William Carlos Williams, who noted in his autobiography that, while men always had provided direction in his life, women had supplied the energy. There is something mysteriously pagan in this notion, but maybe that's how the great universe works. It works for me.

And when the notion is applied to jazz, the canny fan instantly can run the roll call of the great distaff contributions to the music. But it would be a mistake of universal proportions to think of the women of jazz as an auxiliary to the main trunk of the genre, as though they were spooning up chicken casserole at any of the thousands of old soldiers' clubs that can be found in every city, village and hamlet of my country.

In jazz, there is a different construct. Women, I observe from a listener's point of view, provide both direction and energy. And it should be a point of pride for jazz lovers that this is so. It is hard to imagine a jazz world without Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Abbey Lincoln, Anita O'Day, Blossom Dearie, Cleo Laine.

All of these artists have given me something I can't describe easily. Their gift has instilled in me a belief in the solid, immutable wholeness of living. That's vague, I know, and maybe a little airy-fairy, but jazz lovers know what I mean.

Let us take Abbey Lincoln as an example.

After several permutations on her professional name and a period spent in the bands that are the equivalent of today's fern bar entertainment, she became an heiress apparent to the throne previously occupied by Holiday, whom she admired.

And she was well-fitted for the job. I've never heard a syllable from her performance of a lyric that wasn't freighted with her belief in the absolute truth of the statement. Like Lady Day, Lincoln always has delivered on her potential for direction and energy.

Her marriage to the great drummer, Max Roach, was a natural coupling, and, together, they produced music fit for the hall of fame. But it always has seemed to me that Lincoln, rather than Roach, was the driving force in their collaborations. I can't prove it. I merely assert it.

And I detect her influence in many of the other big names with whom she's worked: Benny Carter, Kenny Dorham, Sonny Rollins, Benny Golson, Wynton Kelly, Curtis Fuller, Charles Mingus, Booker Little, Eric Dolphy and Coleman Hawkins.

But politics reared its ugly head and Lincoln seems to have fallen into some kind of musico-political limbo, because she is nothing if not passionate. Perhaps it is her choice, but I crave more of her commitment to the great music she renders. To her fans, there is no news in my proclaiming that Abbey Lincoln is among the most thoroughly engaged and committed artists of her day.

Now 72, she remains a figure of mystery to me. And I like to think that's because she had it her own way, without regrets.

Though recordings periodically are issued in her name, I've lost track of which are current and which are reissues. But, for me, it doesn't matter. It's her passion and honesty I admire and, given her interesting place in the great history of jazz, there is no reason to suspect that today's recordings are any less passionate or honest than those of earlier years.

I offer one recommendation for those of my friends who don't know her work, and that is the 1961 recording on the Candid label titled "Straight Ahead." It is now in print, reissued on the Barnaby label, and features some of the greatest sidemen ever assembled: Mal Waldron, Eric Dolphy, Coleman Hawkins, Booker Little and Max Roach. Don't miss "When Malindy Sings."

And think of Abbey Lincoln before you sleep tonight. We need more of her.