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Night Lights Classic Jazz

An Iconic Voice, An Iconic Eye: Abbey Lincoln And Herman Leonard

Abbey Lincoln personified the soul of jazz; Herman Leonard caught it with his camera.

  • Dexter Gordon Leonard photo

    Image 1 of 2

    Photo: Book cover

    Herman Leonard's photos, wreathed in smoke and nightclub light, connoted the cool grace of mid-20th-century jazz.

  • Abbey Lincoln It's Me

    Image 2 of 2

    Photo: CD cover

    Abbey Lincoln: standards singer, actress, civil-rights activist, songwriter. Her career followed a remarkable path of evolution.

The jazz world lost two legends this past weekend: singer Abbey Lincoln and photographer Herman Leonard. Both made indelible marks on jazz history; both bore that indelible stamp of personality that is the trademark of successful artistry in jazz.

Lincoln’s Life: A Remarkable Arc

From a contemporary perspective, Abbey Lincoln’s career was a remarkable arc of evolution, a jazz-profile-in-courage. There’s always talk about how Lincoln was marketed as a “supper-club” kind of jazz singer in her early years, but even then she had an edge that made her American songbook recordings stand out (take the “Strong Man” side with Sonny Rollins, for example).

By the time she recorded “Afro-Blue,” on the 1959 Riverside LP Abbey Is Blue, the stage was set for the artistic-breakout records Lincoln made with partner/husband Max Roach in the early 1960s. These records found Lincoln employing a wide-ranging expression that including giving voice to overt anger. Such socially-aware assertiveness had rarely been heard before in jazz vocals.

Lincoln and Roach brought something to the table that’s still controversial today – the notion that it ain’t no sin to talk a little justice in your art, to acknowledge and challenge the inequities of the status quo.

Abbey Lincoln’s Struggle For Identity

Lincoln’s status as a civil rights icon is well deserved, yet it can sometimes overshadow the other aspects and pleasures of her talent. The craggy swoop of her voice in her later years, her emergence as a notable songwriter in the last several decades of her life (“Bird Alone,” “Throw It Away”) are all integral pieces of her story.

Ultimately, though, Lincoln’s politics are key to her struggle for identity, in terms of gender as well as race. Like Nina Simone, Lincoln expanded the idea of what an African-American female jazz singer could represent, both culturally and musically. She loved Billie Holiday, and while one needn’t hang the “successor” label on her (or Simone, for that matter), she became a model for future vocalists in the way that Holiday had been for so many young singers like Lincoln in the 1940s and 50s.

Herman Leonard: In Pursuit Of Cool Grace

Herman Leonard was (and will continue to be) revered for the smoke-and-nightclub-light-wreathed photos he took of jazz greats such as Dexter Gordon and Billie Holiday. He often seemed to catch his subjects in moments of cool grace, whether they were paused in a moment of contemplation (the Gordon photo) or raising their hands to the microphone in jazzy benediction (the Holiday photo). The images evoked a sort of spiritual sophistication.

Leonard’s photography, like that of William Gottlieb or Francis Wolff, made a meaningful contribution to the elevation of jazz’s stature in America. It gave artists a visual dignity – even a near-mythic quality – that served the emerging historical narrative of the music well. It was high art of its own kind; Mark Stryker, music critic for the Detroit Free Press, made an apt comment on the blog Organissimo:

William Gottlieb was more about capturing “the moment” in the sense of a journalist, though I think his best images ascended to the level of art. But Leonard was making portraits as an artist from the get-go.

Lincoln’s recordings and Leonard’s photographs will certainly endure. Hopefully, they’ll continue to inspire younger artists as well. Each artist left a considerable legacy – how life can sound, on one hand, and on the other, how it can look. Each is worthy of the deepest gratitude and appreciation that jazz fans can muster.

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David Brent Johnson

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Brent Johnson moved to Bloomington in 1991. He is an alumnus of Indiana University, and began working with WFIU in 2002. Currently, David serves as jazz producer and systems coordinator at the station. His interests include literature, history, music, writing, and movies.

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