ABBEY LINCOLN: 1930-2010
Posted on 8/15/2010at 9:23 PM
I don’t remember exactly when and how I met Abbey Lincoln, but I do remember being very intimidated by her. She didn’t have a mean presence, just a strong one. Very strong.

What I DO remember about meeting her, and the memory I’ll forever hold in my brain, was her smile. When Abbey smiled, it was like a sunshower. When she laughed, it was a belly laugh. She laughed with her entire body. I was very honored to get a few of those belly laughs out of her from time to time.

In 1994, Verve Records enjoyed a much-publicized 50th anniversary concert, CD and live DVD at Carnegie Hall. The month leading up to the concert at Carnegie Hall saw a flurry of press events for the label. Even though I wasn’t officially a Verve artist yet when the concert happened, I’d given my verbal commitment to them, so they asked me to be a part of two events that Abbey was also a part of.

The first was more than special. It was a photo shoot for New York Magazine with Abbey, Betty Carter & me. Just the three of us. By this time, I’d known Betty for quite a while, but I was just getting to know Abbey. To be in the room with just Betty and Abbey for two hours was something I knew I’d never see again. Betty, of course, was the self-appointed “director” of the photo shoot. (LOL!) She was ordering the photographer around, telling him what shots to take, where to put his lights, etc, etc. Abbey was just laying back, being cool. However, one of the poses that Betty ordered was a “kiss” shot. I have a photo of Betty Carter and Abbey Lincoln kissing me on each cheek. I remember Betty kept saying, “McBride, you look scared. You’re supposed to ENJOY us kissing you! Come on, get with it! Look like you’re enjoying the kiss this time!” I think we took three of those shots. Abbey laughed the whole time.

During the lunch break, Abbey sort of pushed back on Betty’s incessant energy. Betty started to get on a roll about how important it was for Abbey to work more in order to “spread the knowledge” to the people and to the younger musicians coming up on the scene. In defense of Abbey, she seemed to work a whole lot during the early 90’s, so I don’t think she needed to “get out there more” than she already was. Abbey said, “But Betty, I don’t feel like working more. I need a break every now and then.” Betty replied, “But Abbey, you gotta get out there and do it more. Those young musicians need you.” Abbey calmly replied, “They know they got me. I do a good job training my guys.” Betty continued, “Abbey, we aren’t going to be out here forever, so we gotta get out there. Call your agent and......” Abbey shot back, “Betty…….NO, I’M NOT!!” Betty calmly and quietly stood down.

After that incident, I thought things were going to be weird between the two of them for the rest of the day. The second Abbey said “No, I’m not…” A pregnant, uneasy three seconds went by and then it was as if nothing ever happened. Abbey went back to smiling, Betty went back to telling the photographer what to do and all was perfect in the castle.

Abbey lit up a cigarette, took a drink of water and we took some more pictures and did an impromptu version of “Come Rain or Come Shine” while the photographer shot more photos of the three of us. Sigh……what a great memory.

The Monday before the Carnegie Hall concert, I performed on ABC’s “Good Morning, America” with Abbey, Herbie Hancock and Joe Henderson. No drums. We performed “How High The Moon”. Another great, great memory. I have the VHS tape buried in my office somewhere. I was, and still am, so honored to have been in the presence of such greatness.

It is solely because of what happened with Abbey about six weeks later that I started a habit of saving all of my favorite voice messages. Something that I still do 16 years later.

Abbey was about to begin working on what was to become her “A Turtle’s Dream” CD with me, Rodney Kendrick, Victor Lewis, Roy Hargrove, Lucky Peterson among many other special guests. Recording was scheduled to begin at noon on May 31st (my 22nd birthday). The night before, I was performing in Atlanta. I took a 9am flight that got me to LaGuardia just after 11am. I told the van driver to get me to 46th and 10th avenue (Clinton Studios) as fast as he could.

When I arrived at the studio, there was no one there. The woman at security said, “May I help you?” I said, “I’m here for the Abbey Lincoln session.” She said, “Oh, that was canceled. You didn’t get the message? Abbey’s in the hospital.” Shocked, I asked what happened. She said that Abbey had appendicitis, so it wasn’t life-threatening. “Whew, thank God”, I thought. I was glad to hear that Abbey would be okay and out of the hospital in just a day or two.

The following evening, I came home to find a message on my machine from none other than Abbey herself. She said, “Christian, it’s Abbey. I heard you went to the studio yesterday. I’m sorry you didn’t get the message. I hope you don’t think I messed over you on purpose. I‘m extra sorry because I know yesterday was your birthday. I hope you forgive me for getting sick on you. This is for you….”

Then Abbey proceeded to sing “Happy Birthday” to me on my answering machine.

It was that moment that I decided that I would save every special message anyone ever left for me. Abbey’s was my first extra special message.

I got to see Abbey many times after that session, but I never got to spend any serious, quality time with her. I regret that, but I always tried to make her laugh when I did see her.

I will listen to her music, watch her movies, remember her voice, her smile, her resolve, her pride and her laugh with great memories and admiration forever.

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