JAZZ'S BEY BOPS OUT OF THE BACKGROUND
- Andrew Gilbert
San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, April 3, 2005


After a lifetime of rubbing shoulders with jazz's greatest artists, Andy Bey has finally joined their ranks.

A child prodigy of the 1940s who wowed audiences at the Apollo Theater with Louis Jordan and went on to share stages as a teenager with stars such as Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington, Bey has emerged in the past decade as jazz's most soulful male vocalist. Since his ravishing 1996 album "Ballads Blues & Bey" reintroduced him as a solo artist after a two-decade recording drought, he has released a series of CDs that capture his sumptuous baritone on a formidable array of material, with American songbook standards nestling up to tunes by Milton Nascimento, Nick Drake, Sting and Big Bill Broonzy.

While he's quick to point out that talk of his rediscovery overlooks the fact that he's been honing his craft for decades, there's no doubt that his music's emotional honesty is informed by his arduous personal journey.
"I've been able to draw from all the experience I've had," says Bey, 65, who makes his Yoshi's debut as a quartet leader Saturday and next Sunday.

"I'm always trying to investigate the music on an inner level. My thing is not so much about entertaining as communicating." With his mischievous dark eyes, Bey radiates the inner calm of a man who has attained hard-earned self-knowledge. While always respected by his peers, he spent much of his career guarded and somewhat aloof, not so much hiding the fact that he was gay as braced against his peers' possible
reaction.


"I didn't have to hide. I knew what I was," Bey says. "But around certain circles, sometimes I'd wonder, 'What are they going to think when they find out?' "

Not long after being learning he was HIV-positive in 1994, Bey decided to come out in an interview with a gay publication in New York, a spontaneous decision that coincided with the blossoming of his career. It wasn't so much cause and effect as a confluence of his approach to his life and his art.

"I was really putting all my cards on the table," Bey says in a phone conversation from London before performing at Ronnie Scott's. "This is who I am, you can take me or leave me, and some of them did leave me. But that was cool, too, because I knew I had the strength within me to survive it. Now
I'm in very good health."

Whether coming out hurt or helped his career, Bey has gained widespread recognition over the past decade as a valued jazz singer. In 2004, he was voted male jazz singer of the year by the Jazz Journalists Association, and his most recent album, "American Song" (Savoy), was nominated for a Grammy. He's finally getting hired for high-profile gigs, like January's Harold Arlen centenary celebration at New York's Blue Note, where he shared billing with pianist Eric Reed, pianist-singer Dena DeRose and Bay Area chanteuse Paula West, a longtime fan of Bey's.

"He really draws a person into a song," West says. "Everything he does is about his truth. He's an amazing interpreter who always finds an approach that you'd never expect. There are so many people who still aren't aware of Andy. I always bring new people to see him when he's in town, and they're always blown away."

Bey has been astounding people since he was 3, when he entertained his family with his precocious boogie-woogie piano work. He started performing professionally as a child, appearing on the television shows "Spotlight on Harlem" and "The Star Time Kids." In high school, he formed a singing group with two of eight older siblings, Andy Bey & the Bey Sisters. He was 19 when they left their home in Newark, N.J., for a two-month European engagement.

The tour ended up lasting 16 months, culminating with a long-running gig at the Blue Note in Paris, where they played opposite the house trio featuring expatriate bebop legends Bud Powell on piano and Kenny Clarke on drums.

"That was a wonderful experience," Bey recalls. "I had a chance to meet a lot of visiting artists coming through -- Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz, Chet Baker, Kenny Dorham. People like Marlon Brando, Juliet Greco and Marlene Dietrich would come by the club to hear us perform. We worked a little bit at the Olympia Theatre, too, opposite the big Josephine Baker revue."

After a recording deal with RCA fizzled, the group signed with Prestige and released the mid-'60s albums "Now! Hear!" and " 'Round Midnight" (both available on the Prestige CD "Andy Bey & the Bey Sisters"), but Bey decided to strike out on his own in 1966. He studied piano, hung out in Chicago with the avant-garde Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians collective, collaborated with various jazz luminaries (Max Roach, McCoy Tyner, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Frank Foster) and recorded memorable albums with Horace Silver, Gary Bartz and Stanley Clarke.

Those sessions called for him to employ his clarion voice so he could be heard over the hard-charging horns. His own recordings have revealed a marvelously flexible instrument that can move in a breath from a pure,
feathery falsetto to a deep, chesty baritone.

"I still sing with the power voice, but I have more balance now because I'm using all the intonation," Bey says. "My voice is so big that if I sing in the tenor range with power all the time, it would be monotonous to me. I had to develop this other side of me, because I like singing intimately."