The 50th VMP Classics record holds a special place for me because of my connection to Abbey Lincoln. It all started when I went to college. Like many 18-year-olds broadening their horizons, I discovered a love of jazz. In a classroom, the associate professor decided to show us Ken Burns’ iconic documentary on the history of the genre. While many of my classmates were bored, I was astounded. I had a cursory knowledge of jazz limited to the big names: Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Chet Baker, among many. I began to fervently consume as much jazz as I possibly could by checking out CDs from the public library and assembling a catalog, piecemeal, of tracks from Napster (this was the early 2000s, after all). It felt like an entire chapter of history had opened to me at once and I drank it all in.
Consuming that much music was like trying to drink from a firehose, but I was hooked. I tried every genre, every obscure band that everyone told me I just had to try, and even began growing my own collection. Hundreds of burned CDs littered my dorm room. While I tried listening to as much as I could, I became obsessed with one artist in particular: Abbey Lincoln. Part Billie Holliday, part Maya Angelou and just an absolute stunner, I listened to every album she released. I watched her movies, including Nothing but a Man, The Girl Can’t Help It and For Love of Ivy. I rewatched Mo’ Better Blues. I tried to find a poster of her for my dorm room. I procured vinyl copies of Abbey Lincoln’s Affair and Abbey Is Blue. I felt like I had found a lost treasure no one knew about.
When I returned home to the Chicago suburbs, I would not stop talking about jazz. I visited my neighbors, David and Juana Wooldridge, family friends since we had moved into our home a few years prior. The Wooldridges welcomed me back from my first semester at school and they asked me what I had learned. I immediately began spilling my cobbled knowledge of jazz. The first Black vice president at Motorola and a brilliant man, the man I called Uncle David, smiled and humored me as I told him about a genre he already had an intimate knowledge of. I then told him about this great artist and asked, had he heard of Abbey Lincoln?
Uncle David laughed and grabbed his chest. I was confused; had I said something wrong? He rolled with laughter for a minute before stopping and grasping my shoulder. He smiled and said, “Abbey is my sister.”
My jaw dropped. Born Anna Marie Wooldridge, this artist I listened to and watched was my neighbor’s sister! Uncle David popped in a video of a documentary about her featuring interviews with him. I was astounded.
I thought that would be the end of it, but when I returned a few months later, I visited the Wooldridges for lunch. I walked in the door and at the table was Abbey Lincoln herself. I could barely contain myself. For the next few hours, she told me stories of her friendship with Maya Angelou, dinners with Miles Davis, her marriage to Max Roach and more. I will never forget this life-changing experience.
While I never got the chance to meet her again before she passed away in 2010, she did leave me with a personalized copy of her album Wholly Earth, a treasured possession of mine. She is a remarkable musician and I could not be more excited that her brilliant album, It’s Magic, is the July VMP Classics Record of the Month. I cannot wait for everyone to be blown away like I was.