I’ve always loved music but my real musical education kicked in in my early thirties. Many of my greatest teachers were friends like Paul and Brian who turned me onto Carmen MacRae and Cesaria Evora. Sheila and Mario, who took me to see Jimmy Scott at Catelinas in Hollywood. I saw Ella Fitzgerald at the Hollywood Bowl. Nancy Wilson also at the bowl, Shirley Horn at Catalina Bar and Grill. Anita O’Day at the Atlas-- so many incredible singers and musicians.
I also got to see Abbey Lincoln at the Jazz Bakery in Venice, California. It had become a popular jazz spot and drawing big names and when Abbey Lincoln was announced it was an opportunity not to be missed.
The venue was inside the old Helm’s Bakery building on Venice boulevard, a block long building from the 1920s which used to house the company that made bread for much of Los Angeles in the first half of the twentieth century.
I knew the building from when it was called the Antique Guild. When I was a teenager, my mom would take me with her on antique finding missions. It was a massive, open space with endless rows of stuff from all over—and the best kind of antiquing, not all cleaned up, or well arranged, or presented, but clumped together for you to climb through and discover.
By the 90s the building had been cleaned up. Gentrification. The club was a small part of a large complex of offices and studios and showrooms.
I’d never been there before so was excited to see what the buzz was all about. It was surprisingly mundane inside. I was used to old-school clubs with dark corners and small tables squeezed in front of a small stage. A bar over to the side where regulars would nurse dark brown cocktails in tumblers.
This was more like a room where you’d see a powerpoint presentation. Sensible plastic chairs in rows, the walls covered by those heavy curtains that slide on a runner at the ceiling in an attempt to add warmth to a conference room. The place filled up. It wasn’t a big room, maybe 200 hundred seats, maybe? On the stage was a baby grand piano, drum kit and set up for several musicians. The lights dimmed and the band entered—young guys, in suits. Nice—serious like. They jammed for a bit and then over the loudspeaker: “Ladies and gentlemen, the Jazz Bakery is proud to present, Abbey Lincoln.”
I first heard Abbey Lincoln on a CD that I stole from the Brand Library in Glendale. I’m not proud of this, the stealing, but I am glad that I got to know her music. It was a rough time for me. I was living in a small forest service cabin on the side of a hill in Echo Park. I was a terrible drunk and was having a lot of anonymous sex. I was a mess. Anyway, one day I drove out to the library for some music I was trying to find for my day job. The Brand library is an incredible place, the collection focuses on visual art and music. It’s in a former private home built in 1904 and resembling a combination of Indian Palace and Spanish Villa. My tale of stealing gets worse, I checked out 12 CDs that day and never took them back. It wasn’t my intention to keep them but somehow it was just too much for me to figure out how to drive the 25 minutes to another part of town and get them back to the library where they belonged.
I had a little boom box in my cabin and in the afternoon with the parrots of LA flying between palm trees, I’d open all the windows and the front door, put on a Betty Carter CD and transport myself to another place, a better version of the life I was living, a life rich with music. I’m telling you this to explain that the music, those singers and those songs, they’re a major part of what got me through.
Abbey Lincoln entered, all in black, characteristic black hat on her head. And she began to sing. The kind of singing that feels like dance, or love or a Sunday afternoon on a boat. Sometimes the singing felt scary like it might lose its way, but it was her playing with the melody, the phrasing, the song. At one point she said, “We’re now going do The Windmills of Your Mind.” A song I love, originally sung by Dusty Springfield for the film The Thomas Crown Affair, Ms. Lincoln was known for hiring your musicians, just out of school, giving them an incredible education in performance and the life of a jazz musician. They began to play.
“Stop, stop.” The band stopped and she had some words with them. They started up again. “Stop stop,” she said again, they stopped and more words, “Let’s take it from the top again.” She said. And the band started up again. This time she started slapping her open palm on the lid of the piano. Was it the rhythm? Was it anger? Was it both? “No, no, no.” she said as she slapped the lid, the band stopped once more.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Abbey Lincoln said, “It’s a very difficult song and we just don’t have it tonight, so we will move on to the next song.”
I’d never seen any performer take such control of a performance, of a room, of a stage full of musicians. I often say in my workshops that, when making something, the artist must think of themself as god. Responsible for the creation of a new world within their song or book or play. And, let’s face it, musicians are perhaps the greatest of all the art gods, creating the invisible, life sustaining magic of music. Imagine the past several months without it. Or, no, don’t. Life would be too terrible to imagine.
A short postscript to this story: I found some of the cds years later in storage and mailed them back to the library with a note of apology. It doesn’t make it right, but I wanted someone else to have the chance to hear what I heard. For someone else to have a chance to be pulled through