It’s the big night out. Hundreds of jazz fans stream into the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark on a Saturday evening in April, for the decade’s first concert by a hometown legend. Slowly, dreadlocks bobbing, Andy Bey, 66, steps onstage. A diminutive man in a regal gray suit, he flashes a shy yet mischievous grin, then opens his mouth. Out pops a defining tune of the Great Depression, “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” a cockeyed hymn to resilience and optimism in the face of gloom. It could be Bey’s personal anthem, tracking a long career lost—and then regained—when he disclosed that he has HIV. Struck by the moment, Bey tries to ad-lib a lyric, then stumbles. “See, I tried to be poetic and profound,” he says, smiling, “and I messed up.” Indeed, with his four-octave range and bass-baritone poetry, Bey is at his best when improvising—and rebounding. After a 22-year recording hiatus, he was diagnosed with HIV in 1994, started recording and rocketed back onto the jazz scene in 1996, with the acclaimed album Ballads, Blues & Bey, which sold more copies than any of his three previous albums. And he hasn’t stopped since.
Bey began warbling in Newark nightspots at the age of 8 and released his first solo recording, the R&B ditty “Mama’s Little Boy Got the Blues,” at 13 in 1952. Over the next two decades, he recorded with jazz greats Sonny Rollins and Horace Silver and counted Marlon Brando and Marlene Dietrich among his admirers. “You know it’s him the minute you hear his voice,” says renowned jazz singer Freddy Cole. “Musically, he’s one of the finest people I know.” Indeed, critics have hailed him as a top vocal talent since his debut, but mass audiences never took to him like they did to his heartthrob contemporaries Billy Eckstine and Nat King Cole. Bey, who is gay, says he felt isolated by his sexuality in what he calls a homophobic industry. In the late ’70s and in the ’80s, when jazz audiences dwindled nationally, Bey stopped recording entirely. He got by playing gigs in bars, touring with other artists and teaching. “I worked all the time, and sometimes I only made $50 a night,” he says. “But I was having fun. I had learned that the recording industry boxes you in.”
Before his diagnosis, Bey, who is now in good health, attributed frequent colds and other illnesses to work-related exhaustion. “My HIV test result didn’t shock me,” he says. “Whatever kind of setbacks I’ve had—and I’ve had many—they have always made me stronger,” adds Bey, in a soft, still voice. Indeed, he spent the year after his diagnosis redefining his sound and recording Ballads. “I was trying to get into another zone vocally. I didn’t want to be known just for belting and power. That’s only half of what I am about,” he says. Bey adds that HIV “changed the way I looked at things. I realized that you can’t let people, places and situations stop you. And when you change the way you look at things, you are able to connect with what is deep in you.”
The last time I had sat across from Bey, interviewing him for another magazine article, he disclosed to me that he was gay and HIV positive. Ten years later, he says of disclosing, “I learned to just accept the universe on its own terms. I don’t really care how people define me anymore. That’s their business. I’m going to keep going about my business of being who I am.” Prominent jazz critic David Ritz says, “Andy’s first mandate is to give you his own inner muse. And that takes courage. His coming out as a gay, HIV positive man in the jazz world, which is so macho, was an act of great courage and strength.”
As Bey approached and passed 60, he only increased his output. He released Shades of Bey in 1998 and Tuesdays in Chinatown in 2001. In 2004, he earned his first Grammy nomination with American Song. Ritz’s review of that album: “By personalizing every song, by infusing both words and music with their idiosyncra-tic character, the great singers become great composers. They rewrite the standards, casting themselves in the lead roles of startling new dramas. Few singers have that gift. Bey has it in abundance.” He says today of Bey, “He has the interpretive genius that all the great jazz vocalists had—Ella [Fitzgerald], Billie [Holiday] and Sarah [Vaughan]. It’s a tradition that is uncompromising. Most vocalists are just looking to please the producer or the audience.” Bey’s now compiling an album featuring his own lyrics and compositions.
Back at the Newark concert, a city council member joins Bey onstage just after intermission and hands him a plaque dubbing him “Newark’s Crown Jewel.” After Bey’s encore of “Someone to Watch Over Me,” the first track on Ballads, he bows, rather boyishly, as the crowd, including high school friends and family, stands and applauds. He exits, chuckling.