Abbey Lincoln died the other day. She was a jazz singer. When I was in my early teens, and living in a high-rise on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Abbey lived in an apartment a few floors up with her then husband, Max Roach, the Drum King of bebop. Max himself died about three years ago.
As an eleven year old, just getting introduced to the trumpet, with a Mom who sang professionally, and who’d played Miles and Ellington and Coltrane lps on our record player, along with the Ray Charles and Dinah Washington, along with the show tunes and soundtrack albums, it would’ve been really special to know the music they’d created and had been a part of introducing to the world. But I didn’t have a clue.
If Mom had been there, and had expressed her appreciation of the music, it might have sunk in. But she wasn’t there, and Dad’s enthusiastic explanation that these folks were “Jazz Giants” just didn’t register. I remember listening to a tune or two by each of them, but honestly, it must’ve sounded very ‘old timey’ to my young ears, which were then into the Temptations and Aretha, Kool & the Gang and soul brother number 1, James Brown.
It wasn’t until many years and a couple of life stages later that I’d begin to go backward in my music appreciation. Backward into older styles and earlier decades, to the far roots of the fusion that captured my ear in the 70’s – back to the bebop, as wild and revolutionary as any music of that or any other decade.
It’s good though that I got to know Abbey and Max simply as good people, as the friendly and generous neighbours that they were. Our father, who was a social being down to his bones, sometimes went to boxing matches or ball games with Max. And one of their nephews hung out with my brother and I one summer. But other than those indifferent listens to tunes I would only have the ear to appreciate years later, I don’t recall that my life ever ran up against the musical side of Max and Abbey’s. They were just the famous couple that lived upstairs: very grounded, at the same time very dignified, cooler than most, but regular people nonetheless.