Andy Bey - vocalist, pianist, composer - is the most important obscure jazz artist you need to hear these days. Even if you're a die-hard jazz fan, chances are you've never heard Bey play live - I haven't. But my old friend Bobby Baker, who played alto sax with Madison's '60s jazz fusion band Sebastian Moon and whose knowledge of the music is encyclopedic, is ahead of the pack. Bey's a genius, Baker says. "He pulls no punches with his art. His delivery's unique. He has a message to get out, a story to tell."
We get to hear that story on Friday, Feb. 13, when Bey plays the Wisconsin Union Theater - the second installment of this season's Isthmus Jazz Series. So let me bring you up to speed. You could call Bey a late bloomer. He's been performing professionally since he was a kid, but much of his long career flew under the press radar. Now, in his late 60s, he's reaping real recognition. He's copped the Jazz Journalists Association award for best male jazz singer three times since 2004, and his work inspires the high priests of jazz criticism to florid prose. To what does he owe this unconventional success?
The answer's as complex as jazz itself. Few subjects are as controversial as the current state of America's quintessential music. A few years back ex-Village Voice jazz writer Gary Giddins called it an art form of the past, and British critic Stuart Nicholson wrote a much-discussed book titled Is Jazz Dead? Just last month, New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff ran a "Talk to the Newsroom" column that filled eight online pages before running its course. The opening question was this: "Why isn't the jazz audience bigger?"
Is it really curtains for this colossal chunk of our culture? I doubt it. Seriously. Jazz has its ups and downs, but there's a grassroots resurgence going on right now, and the proof's in the online bulletin boards dedicated to this debate. The people are jazzed about jazz.
Bey's late florescence is testimony. Purists can nitpick all they want, but this ground-up process is pushed along by mainstream programming like Ken Burns' 2001 PBS film Jazz and Wynton Marsalis' Jazz at Lincoln Center series. That plus satellite radio programming perked up the public ear. The scene's been revitalized by new-generation expat Cubop players like Dafnis Prieto and Gonzalo Rubalcaba (who've both played in town), and there's a growing cadre of rising young conservatory-trained stars like Esperanza Spaulding, Gretchen Parlato and Lionel Loueke, all here last year.
In the undertow of this new wave, old jazz legends wash to the surface. Some, like Sonny Rollins and McCoy Tyner, never stopped playing. Others are long gone. And a few '60s sidemen who played with post-bop kings but rarely basked in the limelight themselves have emerged as leaders, like drummer Roy Haynes, 83, who headlined last year's Isthmus Jazz Festival.
Much less visible than Haynes over the long haul, Bey still sits slightly outside the mainstream. He's openly gay and HIV-positive in a highly hetero field. And he crosses the lines between blues, bop and pop.
Boogie woogie, jump blues, R&B. That's where Bey, 69, born and raised in Newark, N.J., began. "I was already working at 5 or 6 - I played little gigs, chaperoned by my older sisters," he says. "And my father used to ask me to entertain at family events. I'd play a lot of boogie and sing songs I heard on the radio."
Bey was 12 when he cut his first record, "Mama's Little Boy Got the Blues." "It was just a couple of sides," he says. "I did another 45, a tune called 'Pigtails,' about braids. The flipside was a version of the standard 'Fine and Dandy,' done slowly. I sang that at the Apollo with Louis Jordan when I was 13."
The pop in Bey's chops comes from Nat King Cole, whom he often calls his role model. "I say Cole 'cause I play piano," he says. "Cole was such a great piano player and storyteller. Even before I knew what the words meant I was fascinated by how he handled those tunes. His music evolved so much in the short time he had on earth. His sound was unique, his musicianship was impeccable."
In 1956 - the year Eisenhower was reelected, Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti" topped the charts and Miles Davis' first quintet was cookin' - Bey turned 17. Also that year, Andy Bey and the Bey Sisters, Geraldine and Salome, started gigging at beatnik clubs in Greenwich Village. Within a year they'd landed in Paris, the hotbed of '50s boho chic. They were caught on camera partying with filmmaker Roger Vadim, then married to Brigitte Bardot; they played opposite Bud Powell at the Paris Blue Note. Thelonious Monk was on the scene too; Bey picked up a penchant for Monk's famous dissonant chords and spare, off-center rhythms.
Between Paris and New York the Bey siblings put out three albums of swing in soulful three-part harmony, partially recompiled on a single, self-titled CD. On some tracks they scat 'n' jive, but slow standards prevail. The tempo on their version of "Since I Fell for You" is several heartbeats behind the 1963 top pop Lenny Welch version you probably play in your head. It smolders.
In the mid-'60s, the trio broke up. Bey, back in the States, was freelancing in New York. "I played piano with Roland Kirk, Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, Cecil Taylor and Thad Jones/Mel Lewis," he says. "I did all kinds of situations, from avant garde to swing to R&B. I've always been open to experience."
Most of that work went unrecorded, but Bey made a mark on early '70s jazz/funk fusion. He played with Gary Bartz's Ntu Troop on the Harlem Bush Music albums and JuJu Street Songs, all recently reissued on CD. Bartz is a consummate sax player, but most of those power-to-the-people tunes are too raw for Bey's liquid voice. The notable exception is "Black Maybe," the second track on Juju Street Songs. Bey pours slow blues like molasses over Bartz's limber alto sax, and it sounds superlative.
There's more of Bey's '70s soul side on Horace Silver's electric piano peace-and-love United States of Mind series. A radical departure from Silver's seminal '60s hard bop, these recordings didn't sell well, but they're a softer, swingier side of the fusion movement.
Jazz/rock/funk fusion dragged on, but by the mid-'70s the thrill was gone. Silver and Bartz kept putting out albums, but who was listening? The counterculture dissolved in a roiling sea of commercial backlash, and Bey faded into the shadows, playing gigs as a sideman here and there. He lived in Austria for a while, teaching voice.
In that light his HIV diagnosis in '94 seems like a blessing in disguise - a new lease on music, a victory of voice. From the crisis came a luxuriant, mature approach that caught the ear of producer Herb Jordan, who heard Bey play a solo recital at New York's Whitney Museum of Art.
Jordan put out five Bey albums over the course of the next decade. The first, Ballads, Blues and Bey, an American Songbook set released in '96, was a sleeper success. American Song, another batch of standards, was Grammy-nominated in '02. It swings heavy on the pop side, but in Bey's hands songs like "Satin Doll" and "It's Only a Paper Moon" sound new.
Shades of Bey (1998) and Tuesdays in Chinatown (2001) are less consistent. The latter's the better of the two. It features interesting choices, like Bix Beiderbecke's "In a Mist," which buys Bey a big canvas for vocalese; Big Bill Broonzy's "Feeling Let Down" taps his talent for the blues.
Bey sings the soulful guts out of the title track on the solid and sexy It Ain't Necessarily So, flying into falsetto and swooping down to his bottom range like a righteous preacher. But the '07 release was the album that broke the proverbial camel's back when it came to Bey's collaboration with Jordan.
"I recorded those songs live at Birdland in '97," Bey says. "I didn't want that album to come out. I only agreed to it because I didn't want to start working on a new record with Herb. Our relationship was on shaky ground. I'm in a different place now. No more tunes like 'River Man' [the sappy piece of late-'60s British pop that Bey sings on Shades of Bey]. I'm over that."
So don't expect an album tour Friday night. Bey says he's starting fresh. "I've been writing since the early '70s. A lot of that music's been on hold 'cause I've made other choices for survival and for love of trying different things. But I've always been a piano player, and I'm emphasizing that. I've been working with my own trio - Joe Martin on bass and Vito Lesczak on drums. I'm focusing on my own compositions, and that's what it is."
Plus some Monk, he promises, and maybe some Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie tunes. "I just sing. If you like it you come, if you don't that's cool too. I'm not trying to please a certain audience; it's not about that. It's about doing music that communicates. It's what I'm feeling, it's a metaphysical message - but you have to hear it and come to your own conclusions."