My girl Karen Good took me to see her perform at the Iridium Jazz Club near Lincoln Center back when I was living in Brooklyn and immersing myself in all the city had to offer. I was in my first job as young reporter at Fortune magazine, trying desperately to make the jump into entertainment journalism. Karen - my college classmate and still the best writer I know - beat me to the punch. I think she was working for Vibe at the time and, thankfully, she let me tag along with her to some of the best shows.
We were floored by Abbey Lincoln's performance. First of all, it was a dinner theater scene, which at 26 or 27, I hadn't seen a lot of. We had fabulous seats – literally at the feet of this amazing talent. The way she engaged the audience, chatted, sang – and really entertained – was just incredible. I don't think I'd seen anything like it, since my mother took me to see Lena Horne in “The Lady and her Music,” when I was 12.
Needless to say, I was all gushing and awkward when we got to go backstage to her dressing room after the show. I honestly don't remember the exact words she and I spoke to each other, but it must have gone something like this:
Me: "Oh Ms. Lincoln, I really loved your performance. You were so great."
Abbey: "Well, thank you, baby."
Me: "I've seen you before. Well, not in person, but in Mo' Betta Blues.”
Abbey: "Mo' Betta Blues! I've starred in movies. You hear, me?!?" she raised her voice, glowering at me. "You haven't seen For the Love of Ivy with me and Sidney Poitier?”
I must have been struck dumb and I’m sure I couldn’t do anything but shake my head.
Abbey: "What about Nothing But a Man?!?!"
Maybe I found my voice. If so, I’m sure I said something like, "Well, uh...uh...no...I don't think so..."
She turned from me. And with a wave of her hand, dismissed me as not worthy of being in her presence. I slunk out of her dressing room. I have no idea what Karen did.
Like I said, I don't remember our exact exchange, but I do remember leaving feeling embarrassed and disappointed. I think Karen and I went out and had some drinks and some laughs about Abbey's diva moment afterwards. But honestly, it stung.
I actually had to call my mother about my blessing out when I woke up and it was still on my mind the next day. My mother never felt the same about Abbey Lincoln again. As a matter of fact, we had the opportunity to see her perform at the National Black Arts Festival maybe five years ago. And while we enjoyed her performance, every time I looked over at my mother while Abbey was singing, she had her mouth twisted up. I could hear her mumbling, "She didn't have to treat my baby like that. I don't care who she is."
Abbey kicking me out of her dressing room taught me, the budding entertainment journalist, several good lessons. After that situation, I rarely found myself in the audience of a legendary artist without have a working knowledge of their seminal works – especially if I had at least an hour or so before I knew I was going to be interviewing them or just hanging out backstage with them. If I didn't have time for research, I developed a way to fake it, letting them talk about themselves, and using their attitudes as color for my articles if I saw they were the diva type. And that goes for male artists, too.
The other thing I did after my Abbey Lincoln bruising was to go out and immediately rent For the Love of Ivy and Nothing But a Man, which I adored. Even more, I loved the woman she portrayed in Nothing But a Man, which has been noted as "culturally significant" by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. I've probably seen the movie 25 or 30 times.
Don't get me wrong. I love Abbey Lincoln. She was an unbelievably gifted and creative spirit. Over the years, I’ve gained more appreciation for her immense talent and how she used voice to speak out against injustice.
So, I'll miss her. But I'll never be able to separate her from our only meeting. And that's okay. It was special. I don't know how many others she may have dismissed over her life. Maybe I just caught her on a bad evening.
Regardless, my personal experience with Abbey Lincoln was dramatic and memorable – just like the timeless art she emoted.