Written by Jordannah Elizabeth
I was sitting in a coffee shop in Baltimore City with experimental artist and founder of the nonprofit TECHNE, Bonnie Jones, listening to her talk about the lack of attention, coverage and general acknowledgement of women in jazz and experimental music. Bonnie who is Korean American and has gracefully surpassed her 20s, calmly expressed that women who play jazz get attention when they are very young, and then music critics leave them virtually unnoticed until they hit their “golden years” in their 60s and 70s when they make their last battle cries – their last tours and final albums.
I have to confess that I am no less guilty of this, and am only able to explain my unintended “late” coverage of women in jazz with the excuse that I was too young to critique some of jazz’s best female stars whose heydays were in the 1960s. If I’d been actively writing then, I would have written about these women with ferocious fervor and commitment. Nonetheless, in 2017, there is no danger in paying tribute to women in jazz who were unapologetic, shone bright with wisdom, and gave themselves fully to their music. I can say that being a bit younger, I can appreciate the later works of jazz artists, being naturally bonded with the modern era they were gracefully adjusting to.
In contemplating jazz, women, and the effect that the active metamorphosis aging can bring on music, its tone and creative process – the question may be if anyone is aware of musicians Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln and Linda Sharrock’s reality of survival. They exhibited an astute need for growth and change, and had the ability to morph, challenge and sacrifice their lives, relationships and health to be present and sing right to the end of their lives. Sharrock released 3 full albums in 2015 at the age of 68, returning to her craft after experiencing a debilitating stroke in 2009. Sharrock couldn’t stay away from jazz, improv, noise and the chaos of the free form tones, moaning horns and instrumental shrieks of her collaborators. The Linda Sharrock Network is a quiet testament of survival that many people don’t seem to understand, let alone internalize. But Linda is not a victim or sickly, on the contrary, she is a musical powerhouse as the L.S. Network is comprised of two collaborative bands, one based in France and the other in the United Kingdom. The compositions from their 2015 double album They Begin to Speak, which is split into a live and studio album is outrageously eclectic, spastic, fast-paced and above all things, satisfyingly noisey. Sharrock does improvised and experimental music her own way, and allows the world around the band to create soundscapes that consistently explode. They Begin to Speak (studio excerpt) is bold and tremendously exciting experimental noise piece. Sharrock was able to outdo herself with her newest catalog of work by taking her music and screaming, almost growling vocals to new levels of experimentation.
So, there is Sharrock’s presence on our earthly plane and then there is the posthumous existence of Betty Carter and Abbey Lincoln, two women who lived and died recording, touring and sharing their legacy with the world. The intention to pack their large lives and massive catalogs of music into a digestible nutshell should never attempt to cloak itself in the absoluteness of the phenomenons these women created with their music. I believe the intention in binding the work of Carter, Lincoln and Sharrock into a jazz trifecta should be to raise awareness of what women in jazz are and have been capable of. Betty Carter’s career moving from the 1950s right to the end of her life in the 1998 had a major effect on jazz composers who came after her as she inducted a number of young, raw and ambitious jazz musicians into her bands, molding them and taking them all over the world on her tours. Her ability to turn young artists into forces of nature led her to erect Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead–an intensive School of Music for the world’s most promising young musicians. Jazz Ahead still exists today at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, nineteen years after her death.
Carter’s voice was smooth, milky and unorthodox. The tone of her music went through phases: her music in the 1950s, were of course melodious jazz standards and Black pop love ballads as her voice was owned by major labels like Columbia Records, ABC, and Atlantic. From 1976 to 1996, we were able to watch Carter’s music grow, morph and get a little weird as she settled at Verve Record from the last 20 years of her career. You can hear the difference as she was able to compose her music, bend her style, fight with syncopation, tone, sensuality – leaving her at the end of her life releasing funny, tongue and cheek, yet highly complex jazz albums like Droppin’ Things, which was nominated for a Grammy in 1990. Her style was like no other. Her scatting was otherworldly, preferring to play with more percussive-based musical compositions so she could sing “la da da do do do do” quickly just short of rolling her tongue, but you can’t hold that description as solid and scriptural because Cater’s tempos morphed just as much as her syncopation and almost as much as her vocal sensibility.
The most important thing to know about Carter, though is that she was always driving the ship, using hand signals to guide changes in tone, tempo and time signature. There was no touch of masculine bravado, no inkling of competition with her male counterparts – you can tell, you can hear it because her voice, movements, and pulses were all over her recordings from 1976 to 1996.
Abbey Lincoln was a radical jazz musician in the 1960s, creating protest music in collaboration with her husband, famed jazz musician Max Roach. Now, in regards to Roach, it is not the intention of this piece to allow Roach to overshadow her music any more than he already does. Abbey Lincoln’s 51 active years as a musician compared to Roach’s 48 is interesting to note, nonetheless, Roach released nearly triple the 24 albums she released, but the albums Lincoln released were supple, wise and densely emotive.
Coincidentally, Lincoln ended up being a labelmate of Betty Carter’s at Verve for 8 years. It seems that signing to Verve gave both Lincoln and Carter a sort of creative freedom to be unique. I’ve had to stop and take a couple of days to decide if I want to go with my instinct when it comes to Abbey Lincoln, which is to highlight her later work, particularly her album, Abbey Sings Abbey which was released in 2007. Her single “Throw it Away” is one of the best songs she ever wrote.
“This is holy work …” Abbey told author LaShonda Barnett for the book, “I Got Thunder: Black Women Songwriters on Their Craft”. She continued, “I sing to my ancestors. There’s no emptiness there. This is not about me. It’s about the people. My people.”
Abbey mentions that “Throw it Away” was a fortune she got from throwing runes, an ancient Chinese method of divination. Abbey Sings Abbey is dense, real and has a contemplative tone that meshes innocence and the knowledge of her ancestors. But the most interesting thing about Abbey Sings Abbey is that she adopts the accordion as a prominent instrument throughout the record. Her sensibilities were unique and fun, always bringing experimentation to the table in a way that is not intrusive or weighty. Lincoln’s albums allow you in. Like she said, her music is for the people, and as a listener you feel that and become drawn into her warmth.
Linda Sharrock, Betty Carter and Abbey Lincoln are a jazz trifecta of effervescent talent and unbridled compositional sensibilities. Don’t take them for granted.
–Jordannah Elizabeth, March 7, 2017