The Jazzcat

Abbey Lincoln Kicks off the San Francisco Jazz Festival at the Herbst Theater

by on Oct.27, 2005, under News


This is the first in that series of performances here at the San Francisco Jazz Festival, better known as SF Jazz. Victoria Shelton Gilbert, who is the Associate Director or Public Relations, has provided me with the most perfect seat here at the Herbst Theater for the reigning queen of jazz vocal prowess, Miss Abbey Lincoln.

Abbey Lincoln.

I can’t think of any other singer that I would rather see open up this wonderful serious of music. Abbey Lincoln holds a near and dear place in my heart. It’s not because I know her personally, but it is because her sound and her style have connected with my soul. Cutting through the melody and beauty of the music and finding that raw naked vulnerability and making that her soap box for expression.

Warming and gracing the stage as the face of SF Jazz is Mr. Randall Klein. Randall always welcomes the crowd with a warm demeanor and a plethora of useful educational and artistic information. A portion of the proceeds from this opening performance at the festival will be donated to the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Abbey’s trio opened the show with a bright up tempo piece. On piano, Otmaro Ruiz, on bass, Michael Bowie and Jaz Sawyer is the drummer for the evening. There is a suede chair with gold studs that is sitting there at center stage and in just a few moments, Abbey will grace us with her presence.

As much as I adore her arsenal of music, I have only seen her perform one other time in Los Angeles at The Jazz Bakery a few years ago. Now, I am always the cat who, after the performance, goes backstage and introduces myself, but I realize that out of all of the musicians and singers that I know, I was not ready to meet Abbey. This fear is probably due to the fact that I am one of her biggest fans and I don’t know if any words would have come out of my mouth when meeting her.

After the first number, Abbey slowly saunters on the stage up the microphone and sings, “Down Here Below”. Instantly, I was under her controlling emotional spell. She had this ominous black hat that she took off in such a way that showed sincerity and appreciation for her audience.

When not out front at the microphone, she becomes her own instrument as she vamps and vocalizes with her musicians. She is like a grand mother that you love to death, but she will not hesitate to whop your ass if you get out of line. Ask her musicians. Thorough out the evening, Otmaro, Michael and Jaz were getting verbal spankings for not playing with the power and passion that Abbey wanted to hear. I guess after playing with cats like Max, Julian Priester, Eric Dolphy, Coleman Hawkins, Mal Waldron, Booker Little, Walter Benton, Art Davis, Ron Carter, Paul Chambers, Buddy Collette, Kenny Dorham, Art Farmer, Al Foster, Curtis Fuller, Stan Getz, Benny Golson, Charlie Haden, Jimmy Heath, Billy Higgins, JJ Johnson, Philly Joe Jones, Clifford Jordan, Wynton Kelly, Sam Jones, Steve Lacy, Jackie McLean, Frank Morgan, Jerome Richardson, Sonny Rollins, Archie Shepp, Sahib Shihab, Stanley Turrentine, Clark Terry, Reggie Workman, Cedar Walton, Gerald Wilson, I could continue if you wish. I would imagine that her history speaks for itself when it comes to knowing the music and what she either wants or does not want to hear. Now don’t get me wrong, she has a nice band, they just don’t have the years of experience and wisdom that all of the aforementioned posses. Nor should they, these are the musicians of today and they can get down, it’s just that Abbey is super special and she does not live, sing or exist inside the lines. She just needs the space, the freedom and the stones to be there as she walks upon the water.

 imageAbbey asks the house to turn up the light so she can see her audience. I am sure that whoever was working the lights that evening has never had a request directed at them from center stage right in the middle of a song, so they probably weren’t sure just what to do.  Abbey kicks back in the chair on stage for her like the Herbst Theater is her living room, and it is. She let’s her trio play and comes back to the mic to finish off the tune. “Can you turn the lights up please, there are people out there”. She makes several request for the house lights to rise and will not sing until they are. Abbey is a woman that does get her way. She just wants the stage to be like home when she sings. “The Music is the Magic of a Secret World”, Abbey’s world.

Abbey runs a clinic onstage as she makes sure that her musicians are playing what she wants to hear. These are her children and not her peers. She loves them and they love her back, but in her own words, “Sometimes the stage is not always easy”. And I don’t know if you ever went to go get the switch off of the tree for your grandmother when you got in trouble as a child, but if you did, you can understand the relation between her and her musicians that evening.

“What you gonna Do, What you gonna do” are a few of the lyrics written by Abbey and Nina Simone for the tune “Blues for Mama”. “I miss Nina, I miss Miriam”. “What you gonna do” She is not pleased with what she is hearing from the band and she tells them to “Lay Out”. She proceeds to sing acapella and the audience starts to clap in unison. They think that since the band got slapped on the wrist, they can provide the rhythm. They were wrong.

At intermission I heard all kinds of remarks regarding the performance. I even had a few people come up to me and ask me what I thought. It seems that many do not know what to think. Should they laugh, should they smile, should they feel for the musicians, are the upset because of the constant scolding that Abbey unleashed on her musicians, am I here to be entertained or should I feel honored to be in the presence of art?

Questions, questions, questions! Well if anyone’s performance is going to raise any questions it is going to be one from Abbey Lincoln, but you probably knew that before you came. I am sure that this is part of the fear that I have when it comes to loving Abbey and her music. You have to love her and her music, you can’t just love the music without loving her!

When I was much younger I saw Nina Simone at the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl. If you have ever been to Playboy then you know that eating good food, basking in the sun, hangin’ with your homies, scoping out booties with you binoculars and being in the “place to be,” pretty much takes precedence over whoever is performing on stage. Nina was used to respectful audiences in Europe and around the world. She said “You treat me like a dog” and proceeded to sing a song where the lyrics were “I’m just like a dog, to THEM!” At the time, I thought she was trippin’, but now I understand her. I never got a chance to see the real Nina and I am saddened by that.


I felt that the continuity of Abbey’s first set was choppy do to the admonishment of her players, but I look at Abbey through a different  set of eyes. I know her music and I look past the music to the life. Here is a woman who has never been a follower and always a fighter for the truth in life, love, politics and music. Do you realize how lonely the world can be when you speak the truth?

“I have been on the stage for 75 years and it is not always easy. Most of the musicians that were around when I came to the stage are gone. Miles, Duke, Charlie Parker (pause) and I’m on my way out too!”


You need to understand the woman to understand the struggle, the journey, the politics, the love and loss of love, the stories, what being a strong BLACK woman represents socially and personally and how speaking you mind separates and isolates. Abbey must and will have it her way or no way at all.

She is uncompromising in the freedom of her artistic approach, attitude, and ever present passion for self expression. A “Bird Alone”. She wrote that one while in Japan thinking about Miles Davis in the sky like a bird.

I thought that after the intermission and some sort of locker room pep talk, that the second set would be more forgiving. They started with “The Music is the Magic”, a tune that they did the first set. She probably was not happy with the outcome and decided to “Do It Again” as Shirley would say. Speaking of our beloved Shirley, RIP, I have been hearing some unfounded rumors that Abbey has not been doing well. Her words to the audience, forgotten lyrics, and reminiscent thoughts of the great ones before us even made me ponder mortality. I hope all this in not true and just a figment.

Anyway, Abbey is one of the great ones and history tells us so. This was a concert to remember for many reasons but the best one is the one you will have now and will have in the future when you say, “I saw Abbey Lincoln and “She was as Tender as a Rose”.

LeRoy Downs



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