The ladies and their songs

For nearly 40 years, jazz vocalists Abbey Lincoln and Nancy Wilson have embodied grace and excellence. Their voices have a celestial quality; lyrics flow from their mouths and seem to linger in the air, challenging the laws of gravity.

At their concerts, Lincoln and Wilson make audiences feel as if they are the inspiration that propels each song. On ballads, they transform listeners into ooze and goose bumps, performing songs like storytellers by infusing the words with purpose and sentiment. Both honed their chops appearing in supper clubs, and have produced a mountainous body of recordings. Over the years, they’ve helped to set the standards that generations of jazz vocalists have embraced — which makes them natural headliners at this weekend’s Ford Detroit International Jazz Festival.

Lincoln, a native of Chicago, can recall a time when she had to fight to establish her style. The people she trusted to help direct her career tried to make her into a black Marilyn Monroe. They said that changing her image would jump-start her career, but she felt robbed of her individuality.

But it was Lincoln’s association with legendary drummer Max Roach that changed her outlook on music. Roach told her that she should always sing what she felt and she still lives by those words of wisdom. Once she began to come into her own, jazz critics compared her lush voice and relaxed delivery to those of Billie Holiday.

In 1961, Lincoln cemented her mystique with the release of Straight Ahead, a breakthrough album. This session was a big undertaking because it included such legendary soloists as Coleman Hawkins, Julian Priester, Eric Dolphy, Booker Little and Mal Waldron. Most young vocalists lacked the confidence to surround themselves with such greatness. Yet for Lincoln it proved to be the right formula. Mixing veteran musicians with young lions gave her music a sense of timelessness. Since then, her bands have become a laboratory for up-and-coming musicians; young players such as Marc Cary, Nicolas Payton and Alvester Garnett all got their start with Lincoln.

Nancy Wilson knew at age 6 that she wanted to spend her life singing. She grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and as a teenager sang in the church choir and performed on the local television station. By the age of 22, she had built an impressive résumé. Saxophonist Rusty Bryant hired her to sing in his Carolyn Club Band, and in 1960 she recorded her first album, Like in Love.

One evening, at the 502 Club in Columbus, she joined Julian “Cannonball” Adderley’s band for a few tunes. She knocked out Adderley with her lucid phrasing and he introduced her to John Levy, an entertainment manager. Levy got her a deal with Capitol Records where she became the label’s second best-selling artist next to the Beatles. The 1962 album that she recorded with Adderley, Nancy Wilson & Cannonball Adderley, made her a standout. She added a carefree romanticism to the music, which was akin to the style of “Little” Jimmy Scott, whose sound she claims as her greatest influence.

When Wilson sings a love song, listeners melt like chocolate under intense heat. Over the course of her career, she has also performed pop and R&B, but her heart and soul belong to jazz.

In the last 10 years, female vocalists have begun to re-emerge. One of the voices in this renaissance has been Detroiter Carla Cook, who, like Lincoln and Wilson, has set out to establish her individuality.

Early on, Cook took voice lessons at the Detroit Community Music School, and as a student at Cass Technical High School she was chosen to sing in the All Star Honors Choir. Eventually she moved to Boston and New York, where she worked with trombonist Craig Harris and the Lionel Hampton Orchestra.

Cook’s rise to the forefront of young jazz vocalists was signaled when It’s All About Love, her debut recording, garnered a Grammy nomination. In her music, she uses the same improvisational freedom as instrumentalists do. In fact, her style is as eclectic as pianist Jaki Byard’s solos. She rolls up different musical forms, then ties them to a solid blue sensibility. And when she sings ballads such as “Can This Be Love?” Cook sounds like a youthful Nancy Wilson.

“I went through different phases of listening to different vocalists and started off with Nancy Wilson. I used to have a pink see-through hair brush and I would stand in front of the mirror and try to be like Nancy,” Cook recalls.

Abbey Lincoln and Nancy Wilson have enlivened jazz with their pep and panache while continuing to make music that aims for the heart. And now their classic excellence is being studied and refined by singers such as Carla Cook, who understand the limitless possibilities that jazz vocal music offers.

Says Cook, “The fact that my name is being mentioned with these ladies (Lincoln and Wilson) I think is phenomenal, because they are the reason that I do what I do.”

Charles L. Latimer writes about jazz for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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