Andy Bey's 'American Song' Andy Bey's silky bass-baritone voice has been called "one of the finest instruments in jazz," and after five decades of making music Bey is poised to regain the national spotlight with a new CD collection of ballads. He talks with NPR's Tony Cox about jazz music today — and also being openly gay and HIV positive.

TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox, and this is News and Notes. We've had the pleasure of talking with many brilliant musicians over time here at NPR. Some of them famous, others not so well known, like jazz vocalist Andy Bey. I talked with Bey in 2004 about what it's like being considered a hidden gem of jazz music. What do I mean by that? Well, here's an example.

(Soundbite of song "Satin Doll")

Mr. ANDY BEY (Jazz Vocalist): (Singing) Hey baby, shall we go out skipping? Careful amigo, you're flippin' Speaks Latin, my satin doll…

COX: Andy, you know, you have been in the business a long time but you're not nearly as well known as your talent suggests that you should be. Why do you think that is, and does it bother you at all?

Mr. BEY: Not really because I look at every so-called setback as a way to keep developing. You know, it has to be that way. You know, I've had many crises in my life, but I think it has helped me to develop, you know, a certain kind of strength and tenacity, you might say, but - and I don't know, you know, it's a mixed up thing sometimes.

COX: Talking about crisis that you've had in your life, you have spoken publicly about being HIV positive and gay. As a crisis, I'm assuming that was one for you, and if so, how have you been able to work through that and continue to make such beautiful music?

Mr. BEY: Well, you have to take care of yourself. I've always been into yoga and, you know, I don't indulge in too much stuff, you know, but I think mainly is the - your mental thought, your mental capacity to hang and not deal with a lot of the stuff that you used to deal with. You know, you have to get past a lot of things. And first of all, you have to really accept your responsibilities for any - for everything that happens to you, you know.

COX: You know, in your music, there is a certain - and to my mind - I'm going to create this word, I don't know that it exists - a certain "melancholiness" about some of your approaches to music. If you agree with that, where does that come from?

Mr. BEY: Oh, when you live a certain amount of life (laughing), I mean, you try to breathe into a song a concept of what you're feeling at that moment.

(Soundbite of song "Angel Eyes")

Mr. BEY: (Singing) Try to think that love's not around Still it's uncomfortably near My old heart ain't gaining no ground Because my angel eyes ain't here…

Mr. BEY: I mean, I might sing a song for 25 years and that you might feel all kind of things when you're saying the lyric or sing the melody but it is always that - it's always trying to get inside the song with an intimacy in mind. And that could come out melancholy or sad or dark or - because sometimes your mood is of a certain way at a certain time, you know. Jazz is a feeling. It's always at the moment and you never know what you're going to feel from day to day.

COX: What is it about ballads, Andy Bey, that draws you to that?

Mr. BEY: I don't know, just the idea of you just taking your time and when you have a beautiful melody, the melody is sort of like it's not about so much improv in the sense of changing it - I mean, there are songs you do more too than to others - but when you got a great melody and when you play for yourself, you try to set yourself up in the best harmonic situation you can set yourself up, so where you can like, just play colors behind yourself, and ballads give you that room to just take your time. You can sing them as slow as you want or whatever, but they give you that time to reflect and think about what you're singing.

COX: That certainly is the case in a number of your songs. I'm thinking one in particular, though, and I'd like to get you to comment on that one. This is from the "Ballads, Blues and Bey" album of 1995. The cut "Someone to watch over me," when you were describing this, you know your sense of ballads that song came immediately to my mind. You understand why it would?

Mr. BEY: Yes because at that time when I became positive, and I've always loved that songs because I love Sarah Vaughan's version she did back in '56 or '57. So, I've always had a certain thing with that song.

(Soundbite of song, "Someone to Watch over Me")

Mr. BEY: (Singing) There's a somebody I'm longing to see I hope that she turns out to be Someone to watch over me…

Mr. BEY: Fut when I begin to sing it, it took on a whole new meaning because of what I was going through personally. You know, it wasn't about so much dramatizing it, but it was just about - just trying to get inside the song, of what it meant to me in terms of what I was feeling at that time. There's some times I sing that song I cry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: Really?

Mr. BEY: Another time, oh yeah. And I don't - you know for the obvious maybe for the obvious reason, but I don't think it's for the obvious reasons all the time. Sometime things can be going very well and all of a sudden may be something in the subconscious comes up and you don't know - and I'd be trying not - I'll be trying to hold it back.

COX: Mm hmm. Mm hmm.

Mr. BEY: But sometime - and then I go on boo hoo hoo hoo hoo.

COX: No, I understand. I understand what you're talking about.

Mr. BEY: But, you know, it just - and still has that same kind of thing that gets me, even when I'm not on the verge of tears.

COX: You know, you have also said, Andy, that it's harder for you in the music business in many ways because you are quote, unquote "older and also a man of color." And you have said that there are not many major male jazz singers of any age or color these days. And that, you know, young women like Norah Jones are moving into that genre more and more, which is a pretty interesting thought. Why do you think there are not more males singing jazz vocally these days?

Mr. BEY: I think a lot of male singers are guarded in ways. I mean, a female singer, quote unquote, "may be allowed to express a wider play of emotional colors." A lot of male singers come on - they feel that they have to be a little more macho. They don't want to show - I'm not saying they don't want to show their emotions, but it's hard for them to get pass a certain thing. It's like this guard that's up. And a lot of male singers I find - they might take risks in other ways, but they don't risk it emotionally sometimes.

COX: Mm hmm.

Mr. BEY: That's where the music is coming from as far as I'm concerned.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: Jazz singer Andy Bey from a conversation I had with him in 2004. Bey's latest CD is called "Shades of Bey."

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