Review: The 22nd Annual Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival: Abbey Lincoln Tribute at The Kennedy Center

The music of Abbey Lincoln was The Kennedy Center’s choice for its 22nd Annual Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival. Showcasing the best in old and new jazz artistry, this year’s tribute presented Jazz Masters Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dianne Reeves, and Esperanza Spalding as channels for the creative force of nature that was Abbey Lincoln, consummate jazz singer, actress, composer and civil rights activist. Under the music direction of Grammy Award-winning drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, Thursday night’s concert was an exhilarating experience of compelling jazz and musical perfection.

Abbey Lincoln. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

Abbey Lincoln was a modern day griot. Reaching deep into her African roots after an epiphany on the continent, Abbey emerged to compose a songbook of music telling stories of freedom to fulfill her purpose on earth to set the spirit free. “Jazz is spirit” in her own words and with all original music created by Abbey Lincoln, this concert was a séance-like spiritual experience that unleashed her presence through three magnificent vocalists channeling Abbey’s passionate energy and it blew me away in the process.

“Grand, strong, powerful and the epitome of black femininity”, the spirit of Abbey Lincoln was fully expressed through Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dianne Reeves and Esperanza Spalding’s perfectly matched essences as they projected Lincoln’s fearless creativity. This trio of multiple Grammy Award winning songstresses etched an indelible memory of this incredible artist into the soul forever. Remaining altogether onstage for the entire concert as if not to break the spell cast by the music, Bridgewater, Reeves and Spalding were their own creative forces of nature. They made magic together.

Primal and earthy, the trio’s breathy opening number “The River” conjured up vivid imagery of the urban bush through its lyrics and distinctly African beat. Abbey Lincoln’s compositions have an avant-garde, other-worldly feeling. “The Music is the Magic” impressively sung solo by Dee Dee Bridgewater seemed to open the door to Lincoln’s secret world of musical voodoo.

Abbey Lincoln’s music is not like anything I have heard before. It’s eternally new. It’s fresh. It’s different. And it will always endure for those who appreciate true artistry.

Dee Dee Bridgewater watched Abbey Lincoln perform early on in her own career and knew Abbey in a mother-daughter-like personal relationship. She propels the exact same fierceness, determined individuality and powerful stage presence as her beloved mentor. Bridgewater’s Broadway credits shine brightly through the radiant vibrancy and strong personality she injects into every song. Dee Dee donned a studded black top hat and black velvet shawl as she sat upon a stool glammed by a fuzzy,  purple coverlet fit for a queen that all belonged to Abbey Lincoln.

And in the lobby of The Kennedy Center there is a wonderful glass display of some of Abbey’s other personal belongings like her leopard spotted cowboy hat, funky high heels, rhinestone boots and jazzy sequined dresses giving a sneak peek into the esoteric fashion aura of “The Abbey Lincoln Look” and a bona fide diva.

It’s clear that Abbey Lincoln experienced the longing and the loneliness of unrequited love. “It’s Supposed to Be Love” and “Bird Alone” passionately sung by the multi-octaved Dianne Reeves, raised the rafters and drew you from the depths to the heights by the richness of her vocals.

Esperanza Spalding’s lovely, strong voice on her first solo on “Laugh, Clown, Laugh” was penetratingly beautiful and sung with emotional deliberateness and innocent kind of honesty as she talked about Abbey Lincolns’ unending quest for truth.

Throughout the evening of 14 original works, the vocalists alternated between singing solo but came together for the last three compositions accompanied throughout by the accomplished Terri Lyne Carrington on drums and a band of masterful musicians.

Marc Cary, pianist; Mino Cinelu, percussionist, Edmar Colon, saxophonist (who also plays piano); James Genus, bassist, and Marvin Sewell, guitarist, were in a tight groove and smooth flow on every fantastic beat. Each talented member of the band performed smashing solos interspersed through all of the songs in perfectly balanced accompaniment to the vocalists. The band deserves a special shout-out for exceptionally fine musicianship.

Abbey’s grounded connectedness to Mother Earth, the moving currents of life, and the freedom of the wind were wonderfully felt on imaginative compositions such as “I’ve Got Thunder”, “Wholly Earth” and “Talking to the Sun”. They were sung as solos in tribute to the life-giving qualities of the natural world to which Abbey Lincoln felt spiritually aligned through her music.

“Afro Blue”, one of Abbey Lincoln’s most popularized, was a strongly percussive Afro-centric song but meant for the entire human family; and expressively sung by the miraculous Esperanza Spalding as if creating an Africa stew comprised of multi-ethnic, pulsing melodies.

The lyrics of Abbey Lincoln’s works hold as much meaning as the music. Philosophical and wise like an African elder with “lyrics meant to set you free”, the trios’ last three presentations, “Throw It Away”, “Freedom Does”, and “Blue Monk” preached moments of truth. Standing ovations and a hungered-for encore marked the close of an incredible evening. This was a concert to remember for a long time.

Like a rising serpent as it uncoils itself in defiant ecstasy, or a butterfly as it sheds its cocoon to set its spirit free, the music of Abbey Lincoln is a many-splendored thing.

Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dianne Reeves, Esperanza Spalding, and Terri Lyne Carrington’s tribute to Abbey Lincoln affirmed the enduring gifts of Abbey Lincoln expressed in her lyric, “You can never lose a thing that belongs to you.” Abbey Lincoln and the talented women and men who performed her music for the 22nd Annual Mary Lou Williams Festival at The Kennedy Center truly own it. It belongs to them.

Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes, with no intermission.

The 22nd Annual Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival: Abbey Lincoln Tribute played for one night only on May 4, 2017, at The Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater – 2700 F Street, in Washington, DC. For future tickets to Kennedy Center events, call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.


  1. Was unable to attend the concert(s) however, I did attend last night ABBEY: In the Red. This project was put on by Staycee Pearl Dance project & Soy Sos at the August Wilson Center in Pittsburgh, PA . They did three nights. This was a spectacular body of work. A live music and dance concert with the Ben Opie who composed and rearrange Abbey’s most popular works. The wonder voice of Anqwenique Wingfield who sung so beautifully you didn’t want to clap. Loved her riveding version of Driva Man. She Sung Freedom Day Straight ahead and others. The custumes were spectaclar the dancing was well done it stirred me mentally, physically and spiritually. This Show needs to be seen by all who love Abbey Lincoln. Finally she is getting the recognition she deserves.


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