Andy Bey and the Bey Sisters

Jazz Update…
Andy Bey and the Bey Sisters

by Mark Ruffin

It was back in 1953 when Andy Bey & the Bey Sisters first stepped into a recording studio. Nearly half a century later, in separate cities, the trio is still very active in the jazz community. Andy is in New York, Salome Bey is in Toronto, and the other Bey sister, Geraldine De Haas, is Executive Director of Jazz Unites, a jazz service organization in Chicago.

It is Andy, who still gets the national attention, as his new album, “Tuesdays In Chinatown,” continues his amazing comeback into the spotlight. As in the 60’s &70’s, when his voice was one that spoke for an oppressed people, it is the same today. But, now he speaks as a gay person afflicted with AIDS.

In Chicago, De Haas’s organization continues to develop innovative jazz programming. The organization puts on an annual tribute to Duke Ellington in the spring, and a big summertime jazz festival.

On December 2nd, Jazz Unites presented their “Jazz Mentorship Project,”in Chicago. The program presented young, undiscovered jazz musicians.

Then there is the next generation of Beys, in the person of Aisha and Darius De Haas. Aisha has just finished a run in the Broadway hit play, “Rent,” while Darius, also a Broadway fixture, just finished a critically acclaimed one-man performance at New York’s Lincoln Center as legendary composer Billy Strayhorn. Both of them also perform backup with singer Oleta Adams.

Their aunt, Salome, has been a huge part of the jazz and theatre scene in Montreal and in her adopted hometown of Toronto since 1963. A flattering biography of her is featured in a brand new book on the history of jazz in Canada titled “The Miller Companion to Jazz In Canada.”

Andy re-captured the spotlight when he recorded, “Ballads, Blues and Bey,” in 1996. It was his first album in 22 years and the success was stunning. Reportedly, it sold over 30,000 copies, well above average for a jazz act. Just name the publication, from Billboard to the New York Times, to just about every jazz or black publication in between, and there was articles on Bey’s comeback.

That solo piano/vocal record was followed up by a trio set called “Shades of Bey,” in ’98. On the new record, the 63 year-old musician expands further with up-tempo numbers, sophisticated horn charts and classy string arrangements.

“This is the hardest record that I’ve done,” Bey said by phone from his Manhattan apartment. “I had to focus on playing a little more piano, the varied tempos and I had to learn Portuguese. It was really quite a challenge.”

After Andy Bey & the Bey Sisters broke up in 1966, Bey’s voice became associated with the Black conscious movement through historic recordings with drummer Max Roach, pianist Horace Silver and saxophonist Gary Bartz. There’s many former Black radical who reminisce about the civil rights era when just thinking about Bey.

“Even though I was part of that consciousness scene at that time, I wasn’t purposely trying to go in that direction,” Bey remembered. “It was a natural evolution.

“It was the time, and everything reflected what was going on in civil rights,” he continued. “People were expressing their militancy in their music and I got caught up in that.”

When the Black power movement subsided, so did recording opportunities for the singer. He also eventually caught the HIV virus that causes AIDS.

Slowly, Bey became more of a ballad singer. Where his music of the 70’s screamed of the hope, pain and optimism of Black people, his music of today has a soft romanticism and militancy that speaks the same message to people afflicted with that deadly disease.

“A quiet fire can be even more powerful than that big voice stuff I’ve done in the past,” Bey insisted. “The energy is still there, it just may be softer at times, and I’m much more open.

“With my lifestyle is what it is, I can express my feminine side as well as my masculine side and it comes out natural. Singing is about who you are and being HIV positive has made me stronger and a little more freer. I’m able to say, ‘this is me, take me or leave me on my own terms.’

“I don’t care if the world knows if I’m HIV or gay,” he concludes. “Those are just different labels. I’ve come to realize that first I’m me, a human being then an artist. That gives me a sense of freedom and it makes me feel that the sky is the limit.”