The Advocate
March 16, 2004
Arts & Entertainment section

Openly Bey
At 64, master jazz vocalist Andy Bey is out and proud – and he’s just made one of his best records yet. By Dave White.

“Jazz is not a music that everybody can get into. It’s a music that takes time to hear,” says singer Andy Bey. And he should know. Having begun his career at age 12, Bey has spent over five decades in a world that can seem like a private club, a world where a musician can become “legendary” without becoming famous. Bey knows about that too, having spent those decades gaining status among his contemporaries, sharing stages with the likes of Dinah Washington and Horace Silver, but never becoming a household name – unless that household belonged to somebody like John Coltrane (who called Bey his favorite vocalist), Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, or Lena Horne. Bey has been known as a singer’s singer.

Happily, his recorded output over the past eight years, beginning with Ballads, Blues and Bey – his first solo record in over two decades – and followed by 1998’s Shades of Bey and 2001’s Tuesdays in Chinatown, has begun to change his just-under-the-radar profile. Bey’s latest release, American Song, shows the 64-year-old singer in stunning vocal condition, breathing new life into standards that have been covered so many times by lesser talents that they risk becoming aural wallpaper.

To listen to Bey interpret classics like “Prelude to a Kiss,” “Lush life,” and “Satin Doll” with his emotionally expressive four-octave voice is to experience their intimacy as never before. Acclaimed jazz pianist Geri Allen, responsible along with Bey for the arrangements on American Song, is effusive about her collaborator: “Andy, “ she say simply, “is one of the greatest male voices of our time.”

And if jazz is indeed a music that takes time to hear, it’s gratifying for Bey that more people are finally hearing his. Referring to the music business’s long-standing preference for young female vocalists over African-American male singers, he says, “They don’t let too many of us get through, [but] I wasn’t really trying to be a superstar anyway.”

An additional barrier to mainstream success was Bey’s homosexuality. Life in the closet was all but mandatory in the 1950s and ‘60s, when Bey’s career first took off. “[Being out] would have been quite difficult,” he says, laughing. “[Openly gay composer] Billy Strayhorn caught hell back then when he was playing with Duke Ellington. Johnny Mathis wasn’t open about it. Of course, everyone knows now.”
Bey’s other run-ins with other musicians were few. “They always accepted me for my musicianship,” he observes. “I didn’t try to be ‘one of the guys.’ I was always in my own little world anyway. They just kind of ignored me. It was a part of life, and I didn’t allow it to stop me, though at some point you have to express yourself. He spent most of his career hiding in plain sight, living his life but not discussing it publicly until 1995. “People knew,” he says. “I never tried to hide anything, but I didn’t see the point of telling the world either. Then there came a point where I kind of had to.” When Ballads, Blues and Bey was released, Bey came out as gay and HIV-positive. “I figured if they accepted me, good; if not, that was cool too. It gave me a sense of freedom.”

It was a difficult decision, and the HIV only aggravated the situation. “I figured they were going to find out anyway, [and] I had to learn how to take care of myself and deal with [being positive] on an emotional level. But it didn’t overwhelm or frighten me. It helped me to grow. It made me realize who was and who wasn’t in my corner.”

He can count a renewed fan base in that corner as well as his own hard-won peace of mind. ‘We need a little uncertainty in our life,” says Bey. “You need someone, something, to kick you in the ass occasionally. And I’m learning, at 64, to be more patient. All the little flare-ups in your life are not necessarily good or bad. They’re part of life. If you can learn from them, it helps you to stop, look at them, and understand what they can teach you.”