Andy Bey is blunt about why he is one of only a few successful male black jazz singers around today. “There is still a lot of racism in the music business,” he says. “Black males have to work very hard to appear less threatening, while women are allowed to display much more emotion.
“Exploitation is still a fact of life in the business, and there continues to be far more leeway for white artists over black. This even applies to the advantage that white female singers have over black women.”
As a result, most talented young black men who over the years might have considered a career in jazz have opted instead for the safer confines of R’n’B, gospel or pop. As for New York-based Bey, he has made the best of the downs as well as the ups of his long career, drawing strength from the various barriers that the music business and life have offered him. Being a gay man in the very heterosexual world of jazz has sometimes been a trial, as has the awareness of his HIV-postive status. But Bey claims that those very setbacks have become steppingstones to his artistic growth.
Toronto audiences can soon judge for themselves. Accompanied by Canadian guitarist Paul Meyers, Bey brings his stylish piano-playing and expressive vocalizing to the Toronto Jazz Festival on Mon, Jun 26 — a perfect opportunity to cool down after Pride.
For Bey, each performance is different. “Jazz is not technical — it’s about communicating. Technique is only a way of describing how you express the emotions in the music. Jazz is most importantly a feeling and jazz players and singers never know how they are going to feel each day. A new way of singing a song only works if you are getting a new meaning out of it.”
A certain song can become intimately connected to a singer’s life and therefore to his performances. He admits that regularly singing the wonderful Gershwin ballad “Someone To Watch Over Me” at the time that he became aware of his HIV status gave the song a whole new meaning. Similarly, he says that Rodgers and Hart’s “With A Song In My Heart” has connected to some deep emotions inside him, which are released when he sings that venerable standard. He hopes in turn that those feelings are being transmitted outward as well as inward, resulting in a deeper connection to his audience.
Critically acclaimed CD releases have appeared at regular intervals over the last decade, showcasing his peerless performances of the standard ballad repertoire. But Bey is quick to point out that he is not a one-note artist. “Ballads give me an ideal way of expressing emotions through music, but particularly in performance I love to try other music. I often do newer music, singing and interpreting it the way I feel it.”
Though he points to the depressingly small number of fellow male jazz singers currently performing, he is eager to acknowledge his debt to some great predecessors. First among those is Nat King Cole. “He had great taste, an often plaintive air to his singing and he was tremendously musical. Remember, he was first of all a very great piano player who also sang.” Other jazz baritones who influenced Bey when he was young include Billy Eckstine (“What a wonderful voice he had”) and Duke Ellington regular Al Hibbler. Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra, coming as they did from radically different directions, still serve as sources of enjoyment and education for Bey.
As far as female singers go, the young Bey and his sisters Salome and Geraldine were the lucky recipients of advice and encouragement from Sarah Vaughan. “Technically, Sarah was probably the greatest of all jazz singers. She was able to use her voice in exactly the same way as the greatest solo instrumentalists. In fact she was a wonderful musician, able to handle stuff instantly. She could read the music and off she could go — right on the spot.” In other ways, though, Billie Holliday, with her raw emotional power, remains his favourite.
These influences and a lifetime of listening, playing and singing have enabled Bey to create emotional meaning out of the music he sings. Those eager to find out what a really great jazz singer can do to change a listener’s perception of lyrics and music should head over to the Distillery District the last week of June to watch and hear Andy Bey at work.