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Meet Andy Bey

Chris M. Slawecki By

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If you can't handle the things around you, if you don't know how to adjust to your surroundings and understanding what happiness is not...when you understand what happiness is not, then you arrive at what happiness is.
From the 1995-2003 archive: This article first appeared at All About Jazz in February 2000.

Listening for the first time to Andy Bey is like stepping into a quiet, still lake. Your foot first parts a surface that's smooth and tranquil, but you can't really tell from that surface how deeply your foot must go to reach bottom. The first time you hear Bey's delicate yet muscular voice alone, accompanied only by his own piano, or in larger ensemble contexts, it's like stepping into the edge of a lake that you think goes down only two feet, but finding out it's eight feet deep. You're submerged, lost in the deep music by surprise, almost before you know it.

Bey's jazz and blues may be smooth, but they're nothing like "smooth jazz." Born in 1939, the Newark (NJ) native was a genuine child prodigy as a pianist and singer, garnering appearances at the famed Apollo Theater and on television's "Spotlight On Harlem" and "The Star Time Kids," sharing stages with the likes of Louis Jordan, Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington, before he turned 18. He then formed a vocal trio alongside his sisters Salome and Geraldine and embarked for Europe; Andy & The Bey Sisters were celebrated regulars at The Blue Note in Paris and other venues in Europe from the late 1950s into the early 1960s, when they returned to the US and continued to perform and record (for RCA and Prestige) until the trio disbanded in 1966.

For the two decades thereafter, Bey recorded and performed with such notables as McCoy Tyner, Lonnie Liston Smith, Thad Jones / Mel Lewis, Eddie Harris and others. He was featured vocalist on Gary Bartz' acclaimed Harlem Bush Music projects and for an extended period with Horace Silver, including Silver's The United States of Mind album sequence. In 1991, Bey returned to Europe to teach vocal instruction in Austria; he remained there until '93, when he returned to the States to record his "comeback album," accompanied only by his own piano, called Ballads, Blues & Bey.

The release of Ballads, Blues & Bey in 1996, and his subsequent Shades of Bey, recorded with Bartz, Victor Lewis, Peter Washington and other jazz notables and released in 1998, heralded Bey's "renaissance" in the business he's been in for nearly five decades. Which leaves Bey somewhat bemused: "I never went away, actually. I don't know about this "renaissance." It's...well, it's new in a sense, but it's not like I left the business."

One other thing: Andy Bey is homosexual and HIV positive but it hasn't given him a negative attitude toward life, or the songs that life makes him feel like singing.

All About Jazz: Do you consider yourself somewhat of a Nat King Cole figure known primarily as a vocalist, but an adept if under-appreciated pianist?

Andy Bey: He was a brilliant, brilliant pianist. He was one of my heroes. You ask any pianist out there, living or dead, about listening to Nat "King" Cole, from Bill Evans to Red Garland to Oscar Peterson to any of them. They all listened to Nat. You know, Nat won awards as a pianist.

AAJ: Do you hear echoes of Thelonious Monk in your own playing?

AB: In a way not in the sense that I was copying him, but Monk was definitely a very strong hero of mine. Maybe it's the choice of intervals, I'm into skips in intervals and twelve-tone rows and stuff like that. I've been into that since the '80s.

AAJ: How about his influence on your singing? Sometimes you seem, for example, to go up when convention suggests you might go down.

AB: Well, it's just part of a concept, but it's not something that I'm thinking about. It just happens, I guess, due to the fact that I've spent so much time with music in general, listening to all different kinds of music. So you're drawing from different energies, from be-bop to rhythm and blues to gospel to Indian music to whatever music. Whatever happens will appeal to me at that time. But I can't say that it's a planned thing. It just happens in the process of trying to create, you're just hearing things at that moment. I never do a song the same way. I might have a certain concept in mind that I use, but it's basically something always different.

AAJ: How is your music now different from the sound you started out with in the trio with your sisters?

AB: Actually, I started out before I worked with my sisters, I was doing professional gigs when I was eight years old. I don't want to go back that far, but it was not that much different. It's just more refined now; I was doing things with my sisters that I'm still doing somewhat, in terms of the tempo and in terms of the rhythmic attack we used to use. I used to sing the lower part, having the male voice. We have a family sound, we basically all sound the same. Like the Cole family, him and his brothers sound basically the same when they sang. They're not identical, but you can hear that family sound. Basically, it's just stuff that I grew up listening to and trying to do when I was young, but doing it better as I'm older.

AAJ: Were your parents musicians?

AB: My father was a musician. He played piano, he couldn't read music, and his brother was a pianist as well. He sang and he played tuba, my father. He played music. But he couldn't read music, and I remember him trying to teach me a little bit about music when I was very young.

AAJ: Did he teach you to play piano, or are you self-taught?

AB: Basically self-taught, I started playing by ear. My sister Salome took lessons so there was a piano in the house; she took lessons when she was around eight years old, maybe nine. But by the time I was three years old, I was told, I was always trying to get up on the piano stool and falling off, and then finally stayed there! I learned how to pick out tunes. There was always music in the house, the radio with people of that particular time, like Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan, rhythm and blues, gospel music I heard at the neighborhood churches. There was always music around.

AAJ: How did you wind up working with Louis Jordan?

AB: I was on the Apollo bill, I didn't actually work with him. He was the headliner. It happened due to the fact that I was on "The Star Time Kids," it was a variety show at that time in the early 50s I was a member of that show, and the producer took me to Jubilee Records where I recorded my first record, "Mama's Little Boy Got The Blues." The record got a little play. So it got me a booking at the Apollo, opposite Louis Jordan.

AAJ: You also shared bills with Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan?

AB: That was in "Spotlight On Harlem." One week, Dinah Washington was a guest on the show "Spotlight On Harlem." I saw Sarah Vaughan on "Spotlight On Harlem" because they always had guests on that show. It was a show that featured black artists and entertainers. I was on it with my sisters for the first week, it only came on one time a week, and then I was on two more times afterwards, singing solo.

AAJ: What was the Newark scene like in the 1940s and 50s? Were people just passing through between Philadelphia and New York, or was there a "Newark jazz scene"?

AB: Oh, definitely. People did come through Newark and play at different clubs like Whiteaway Hall or Lloyd's Manor, which you wouldn't say was a jazz club in the sense that it had a lot of different things: it had a theater type situation, it had a bowling alley, it had a lounge, it was like a potpourri of things going on. But Dinah Washington and Ruth Brown used to appear there. Sarah Vaughan was from Newark; she was more pursuing the jazz thing, so she was working in New York a lot, but she lived in Newark. There was Sugar Hill, of course, but that was more the early '50s, there was Teddy Powers' Lounge where I worked with my sisters. But I worked on "The Star Time Kids" with Connie Francis when I was like twelve or thirteen years old. That was when I got the chance to be at the Apollo and did that recording. But this was all around the early 1950s.

AAJ: How did your trio end up in the movie about Chet Baker, "Let's Get Lost"?

AB: That was total...it's very mysterious on my part as well. We knew Chet because we met Chet in '59 in Paris. We sang at a party during that period that Roger Vadim or somebody had at their house, and it was all filmed because Kenny Clarke was there and Bud Powell was there I don't remember seeing Chet there, but I had met him around that particular time. Someone just thought of putting part of that film in there, because other parts of that film had been used in other things to do with the Paris scene at that time. So it was just a splice of some kind. It really had nothing to do with Chet's life; if you look at the piece of footage, it just showed something at a nightclub, like a nightclub setting. Bud was sitting in the audience, and Kenny Clarke was playing drums. I forget who the bassist was, but it was me and my sisters singing. And it was just on for a short minute, then it was off. So it wasn't a thing that we were actually a part of his movie. It was just part of that scene at that time.

AAJ: Did you play with Kenny Clarke extensively? His subtle style on drums seems a good match for your vocal approach.

AB: I worked with Kenny at The Blue Note (in Paris) for quite a few months off and on. Sometimes he'd have to leave for a gig or travel, and there would be a French drummer playing with us, but it was basically Pierre Michelot and Kenny Clarke. Because he was there to play for Bud Powell, who had just come to Paris in '59. So I got a chance to see Bud Powell a lot, and played opposite him at The Blue Note. He taught us a lot of stuff. He was a master. He could play any way that was called for. He worked with all the be-bop groups; he was one of the forerunners of the be-bop movement in the '40s, so he knew all of the hip stuff and all of the licks. But he had such wonderful taste. A lot of the drummers were influenced by Kenny Clarke at that time. He was a wonderful person. He really taught us a lot. Working with somebody like him spoiled you for anybody else. I was getting an education at that time. I was still a teenager, 19 years old. I spent my 20th birthday over there.

AAJ: He didn't spoil you for everybody: You also worked with Max Roach?

AB: Oh, yeah, on one album back in '68 called Members, Don't Get Weary, but I worked with Max with my sisters in Boston in 1960. He had his Sextet. That's when George Wein brought us back from overseas and we played his club called Storyville in Boston. He had a different lineup every week; he would have people like Max, and then he would have Ray Bryant, Horace Silver, Ornette Coleman, whatever, so we had a chance to work opposite a lot of these people. Max actually played for us when we did our little set in between his set. It was like a little intermission or something, but then he had his band.

AAJ: When you played with Horace Silver, did you also play piano?

AB: I could never play piano with Horace! I was just singing. But when me and my sisters were working opposite him, they had a rhythm section for us there: we would do our set, then Horace would come on with his Quintet, and then maybe Ornette Coleman. We had a weekend of Horace Silver, Ornette Coleman, and Andy & The Bey Sisters at Storyville. I didn't start working with Horace until he hired me to sing with him on the The United States of Mind records back in 1970. I met him in 1960 when I was working with my sisters.

AAJ: And you've worked with Rahsaan Roland Kirk?

AB: I played piano for him a few times. Just some gigs. I did some gigs with him at The Village Gate. This was around, I guess, the late '60s or early '70s.

AAJ: How do you play piano for Kirk? Do you just try to keep up, or clear out of his way?

AB: Oh, a lot of that. But he played the basic repertoire, he played the standards, he had some arrangements. Of course you've got to keep up with him! It was quite an experience, but I didn't play with him that long. I played with him for a little bit and I played with Mingus, and Sonny Rollins. I was really thinking about playing more piano. This had to be around the late '60s because I was hanging around New York a lot during that period. Andy & The Bey Sisters had broke up in '66. I was in and out around New York around that period. I was freelancing a lot with people such as Howard McGhee as well.

AAJ: How did you wind up working with Gary Bartz on Harlem Bush Music?

AB: That came about just before 1970. He was on that Members, Don't Get Weary record because he was playing with Max Roach at the time, and I sang the title song. Around that period, he hired me for this record he was thinking about doing for Milestone, which was a volume of Harlem Bush Music, it was a two-record set. One thing led to another and we eventually recorded it. Eventually we got the record together and then we did these gigs. I guess I worked with him up to the summer of 1972.

AAJ: You were also involved with an endeavor into musical theater with Cecil Taylor?

AB: That was around 1976. It was a play called "A Rat's Mass," it was actually a poem by Adrienne Kennedy. It was based on what the music was about. Cecil wrote all the music and he had black singers involved. He had notation: We used to come into rehearsal and he would write out all these kind of scales and you would write the notes down. He had a very unique way of notating his music. He'd just write the notes down it was almost like a scale or some kind of line. There were lyrics involved later on; basically, he'd give each of us certain things to say. But it all worked together. It wasn't easy. I had the title role of Brother Rat. It was very interesting, we did it at the public theater.

AAJ: Atlantic re-released in 1998 one of your 1973 releases, Experience and Judgment. Do you know of any plans to re-issue your Prestige recordings?

AB: I don't really know at this point. But I know they did reissue Round Midnight in Europe, one that I did with my sisters. We did two for Prestige, me and my sisters.

AAJ: Do you find the interest that your albums Ballads, Blues and Bey and Shades of Bey have generated in the previous four decades of your career some call it your "renaissance" at all ironic?

AB: It is quite, you know, quite wonderful. I must say that I'm very pleased. But I never went away, actually. I don't know about this "renaissance." It's... well, it's new in a sense, but it's not like I left the business. I can understand where it's coming from.

AAJ: Why is the cover of Ballads, Blues and Bey a picture of you standing there with your eyes closed?

AB: It's just a shot that Stephanie took. I just posed, it might have been a thing where I had my eyes closed for a moment. But it wasn't a plan. My producer liked it and they used it, but it wasn't a thing where I said "I'm going to close my eyes." It was just one of those things. I was singing most of the time; a lot of times I sing with my eyes closed.

AAJ: It's easy to get lost in the reverie of Ballads, Blues and Bey and thought that was the reason.

AB: That's part of the reason. But you ask her, because she was the one that was adamant about that picture. I wasn't particular about them using it, to be honest. But he said, "Trust me." They were trying to get an image going. The old Blue Note look, a lot of the guys wore hats, they wore open shirts or ties or whatever, and they wanted that classic type of appearance. You look at a lot of those old Blue Note pictures that they used back in the early '50s or early '60s, you'll see a lot of guys wearing ties or open shirts. And it was basically in black and white. So he really dug that picture. It grew on me; it wasn't the image that I see as myself, even though I wore hats like that at one point.

AAJ: What was your approach when you were a vocal instructor in Europe?

AB: You can't really teach anybody how to sing. I taught them different scales and different little technical things dealing with the music, because it was about jazz concept. They had their vocal teachers that they would deal with. I would tell them that it's not necessary to sing a note that way or that you're out of tune, or that you have get your enunciation together with the lyrics, I have to understand what you're saying. If they gave me a song that they wanted to sing, I would work on that song with them, slow it down, preferably a ballad. A lot of times it would help them with their diction. When you're singing fast sometimes you have a tendency to gobble the words anyway, and a lot of them had accents, being German or being Yugoslavian or Italian.

They wanted to learn how to phrase with the American jazz singers' kind of feeling, to understand more about the blues or understand about scat singing. I said, "First, you've got to learn how to speak English, first you've got to learn how to sing a long tone." But there was a classical teacher at the school also, who would give them instructions on certain techniques. I would give them each a two-bar scale to sing and then I would transpose it into all the different keys for their ear training. Then I would write vocal ensemble arrangements of standard tunes in three or four part harmony, and I would have to find out where their voice quality was if they were an alto or tenor or baritone or whatever and I would give each singer their part accordingly. I would give them the whole arrangement. Something simple. I could write anyway, but I learned how to write vocal arrangements since it was easier for me to give them a part rather than to give them something by ear, which I tried but they couldn't retain it. Teach them a conceptual thing, because it was really about jazz singing.

But you can never teach anybody to be a jazz singer, that's something that you've got to do on your own. You've got to work at it, you've got to listen, you've got to experience, you've got to live. It's about living. It's about really dealing with all the things about life the ups and downs, and how serious you are about being dedicated to the music. It's not going to be easy; you're not going to be accepted right away. Maybe you are, but at the same time there's still some dues you've got to pay.

In any business or any life experience, there's still something that you've got to deal with that there's no escaping. There's no shortcuts is what I'm trying to say. It's not about learning something and saying, "I've got it." You've got to learn how to train your ear to be able to deal with the music, to deal with the musicians, to deal with the environment. You might be thrown into someplace where you might get your feelings hurt; if you let that stop you, that's not dealing with things. You're going to get into all kinds of things. It's about learning on the job and being prepared for whatever situation hits you.

AAJ: If you could take any three records into heaven, what would they be?

AB: Oh, god. More than three. Well, Miles Davis' Milestones and Kind of Blue would be two. Sarah Vaughan's album of tunes from Broadway hit shows on Mercury, and the Gershwin thing she did around 1956. Billie Holiday's Decca period. Oh, god. There are so many.

AAJ: Do you have one favorite Nat "King" Cole tune?

AB: Oh, he's somebody that I would also like to put up there. He did so many things, I can't I've got so many of his records.

AAJ: Billie Holiday?

AB: "Lover Man," the 1944 version with strings she did for Decca.

AAJ: Aretha Franklin?

AB: Many by her but I guess "Natural Woman," I would say that's wonderful.

AAJ: Ray Charles?

AB: Oh, god, there's many. "Drown In My Own Tears" or "Georgia."

AAJ: Do you have a standard process that you go through when you select songs to cover?

AB: When me and Herb (Jordan, Bey's producer and manager) put our heads together, he throws a lot of stuff at me and I throw him ideas. He's a very open kind of person. It's about being open, anyway. I mean, sure, there are tunes that are dogs. And there are some that are wonderful. But then you might be able to take something from the most unlikely material, there might be something there that you can do something with. You just try to be open. Sure, there are songs that I immediately gravitate to.

AAJ: Your popularity also seems to be growing thanks to the Acid Jazz movement in England. Does the phrase "Acid Jazz" mean anything to you?

AB: I'm aware of it, but it doesn't really mean anything. My record that I did in 1974, "Experience and Judgment," has been well-received in Europe in an underground sort of sense. A lot of people knew who I was from the Gary Bartz period. There are people who have been sampling a lot of my stuff. "Celestial Blues" has been sampled by three or four people. There's a female singer in London. Well, the guy who produced it, William S. Fischer, could tell you more about it because he's suing people right now! My tune is in his company; he did the recording, he produced the album, which is a CD now. I've been getting a little response from different people from London, people calling me and sending me letters that I have a following in London. I have a following in certain parts of other countries. Even in Paris, they're playing the new stuff a little bit. I've been out there. I've always had sort of an underground thing going on, more or less, but it's getting better now since the two records have come out in the '90s. I'm aware, more or less, that I have a following in Europe and I've been told Japan also, somewhat.

AAJ: Ballads, Blues and Bey was just you with the piano, then Shades of Bey was you with a larger ensemble. What's next, an album with a full orchestra?

AB: We've been talking but we really haven't figured out the ensemble thing yet. We're putting our heads together in some ways. I've got other stuff in the can from Ballads we did sixteen tunes and only used ten, so we may possibly do another solo thing at one point, I'm not saying the next record.

AAJ: The intimacy of just you with a piano seems to complement your voice.

AB: Yeah, but I've got this other thing as well, which I like and people respond to. The intimacy is the thing that got me out there. I've always had that, but I've just never been allowed to exploit it. Me and Herb produce our own records. We work on our own productions, that way we can do things the way we want to do it. But I like the intimacy thing a lot, because it's a part of me that's out there right now, it allows me to do some solo gigs. At the same time, it's good to have the other thing as well, to be strong. If you heard Experience and Judgment, you'd hear how strong that record is. It's totally opposite; even though there's some lighter moments, there's some very strong singing on that record.

AAJ: You gave a great quote to The New York Times in an interview: "But you have to be isolated in order to be really focused. I've always been able to survive somehow, and I've been through the dark tunnel many times. But I always come out a little more enlightened, a little more aware." What is that "dark tunnel"?

AB: Well, you know, in terms of just living, in terms of the trials and tribulations that you go through. My health status and my career not moving a certain way, having to deal with a lot of things not working, not having a record, in terms of just trying to live on this planet with everyday dealings and challenges.

AAJ: What do you like to do when you're not with your music?

AB: I like going to the theater when it's available. I like the movies. I like reading philosophy. A book that I've been reading is The Mystic Path to Cosmic Power by Vernon Howard. Practical philosophy, something that can help me deal with everyday things, trying to be a more conscious, focused human being. That to me is more important than anything.

AAJ: Would you describe yourself more as a spiritual person or a religious person?

AB: I think I'm a more spiritual person. You can be religious and not be spiritual. You can be spiritual and not be religious at all. It's not about a judgmental thing; everybody's at a different level, which is not to say that's they're bad or worse or good or whatever. It's just what you react to. And I find that, with myself, it's dealing with everyday challenges. That to me is more important than dealing with anything else. If you can't handle the things around you, if you don't know how to adjust to your surroundings and understanding what happiness is not...when you understand what happiness is not, then you arrive at what happiness is. You can't change things, you sort of replace things other than change them. You can't change certain animal species into others. You can't change a dog into a cat, or a snake into a dove. But you can replace them.

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