The torchbearer: Andy Bey

Boston Globe, December 21, 2007

Of all the great expressive traditions in jazz, the male vocal is one that has had difficulty maintaining its position in the music’s evolving marketplace. The shortage of prominent male singers is especially pronounced when it comes to African-American voices. For all the reinvigoration of jazz today, few if any inheritors of Nat King Cole or Johnny Hartman have emerged, and there’s a case to be made that something important beyond the music itself is thereby threatened.

This context makes the story of Andy Bey all the more remarkable. Now 68, Bey was a noted vocalist half a century ago, before nearly vanishing in the 1970s. Now he’s a decade into a comeback career that has proved commercially fitful but earned critical acclaim. Since “Ballads, Blues & Bey” in 1996, he has made several albums, released on small labels, that interpret standards in particular with a level of technique, sensitivity, and – dare one say it – soul that surpasses the competition.

Bey celebrates his latest release, “Ain’t Necessarily So,” tonight at Regattabar. The recording itself isn’t new. A 1997 live date at a New York club, it presents eight songs at an unhurried pace. From the start of the title track, Bey’s radiant baritone is redolent with church and the blues, and later, on “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” he conveys to perfection the Depression-era classic’s mixture of anger and dignity.

“It stands the test of time,” Bey says of the album, by phone from his home in upper Manhattan. The same could be said, of course, of Bey himself, a shooting star who experienced fame early before falling on troubled times. He grew up in Newark, N.J., one of nine children in a family where the father, a tuba player, had to become a window cleaner to make ends meet.

Bey played piano and sang from an early age. “I was a child prodigy,” he says. “Music was accessible back then. There was jazz on AM radio. I was like a sponge. I developed an ear, and one thing led to another.”

He remembers Newark in the 1950s – a city that also produced Sarah Vaughan and Wayne Shorter – as a nurturing community where family, churches, and local clubs offered a budding musician multiple settings to develop his art.

In his late teens, Bey formed a band with his sisters Salome and Geraldine. Singing with women, he says, helped him develop his falsetto, which is more medium than high-pitched, full enough to permit subtlety. The group would tour extensively in the United States and Europe and recorded three albums in the 1960s.

By the end of the decade, Bey was caught up in the turbulence of the times, appearing on albums by the likes of Max Roach, Gary Bartz, and Horace Silver, singing political and spiritual messages. A 1969 album under his own name, titled “Experience and Judgment,” was recently rereleased: It’s a classic period piece, a groove and funk record brimming with themes of individual discovery and transcendence.

But not long after that, Bey essentially disappeared. He continued to work periodically with Bartz and Silver but stopped recording as a leader. As it turned out, he had his own journey of self-discovery to make. It was only in the early 1990s that he came out as openly gay. He was also diagnosed as being HIV positive.

It’s hard not to draw a link between Bey’s self-acceptance and the concurrent revitalization of his career. Until then, one way he had found to survive was by teaching; though neglected in the marketplace, he was known to connoisseurs and regularly fielded invitations to music schools. But around 1994, he says, he gave up a teaching gig in Graz, Austria, and took the risk of devoting himself to performing again.

“I freelanced around New York, working whenever I could get a gig,” he says. “It was a struggle. I had no gigs, no record company, I hadn’t recorded for 23 years.” He says it was a series of fortuitous events that led to the recording of “Ballads, Blues & Bey.” Even then, he says, “25 record companies turned it down.”

Now Bey is going through the stages of rediscovery, as widening circles of aficionados cotton onto his work. His back catalog is mainly consigned to obscure vinyl, but his new recordings lack nothing in intensity and affective power. Most of the songs are standards, but he says his current direction is toward playing more piano and singing his own compositions.

Scrutinizing the world of jazz vocals today, Bey doesn’t hide the chip on his shoulder: “I get a little [ticked] off about what I see,” he says. “When I was coming up, it was about on-the-job training, getting a gig, experience. It wasn’t about taking you and making you a star.” He says he doesn’t trust the intentions of bookers and labels.

Still, he says, he sees his own journey through the wilderness as a blessing in disguise. “Every setback I’ve had has been the greatest teacher,” he says. “I’ve had a lot of bad experiences with people, situations, places, and things, and it’s made me more disciplined and focused. Now I see that I was being protected, guided by something.”

He adds: “What is success? It’s not based on how much talent you’ve got. Success has no meaning for me, anyway. You have to trust something deeper than success.”