Andy Bey may be 68, with a career that spans more than six decades and a reputation as one of the finest jazz vocalists around, but he still sees himself as an artist - and a person - in development. Not content to rest on his hard-earned laurels, Bey is still working on his voice, his piano playing, and his inner self.
"I'm always curious and trying to work out different things musically," he said earlier this week from Medicine Hat, shortly before a performance at the city's jazz festival. "It's a continuing exploratory journey for me."
Bey takes that journey to Vancouver tonight, where he will perform during the closing weekend of the TD Canada Trust Vancouver International Jazz Festival.
Bey was born in Newark, N.J., in 1939 and began playing piano at the age of three. He became something of a child star: By the time he was 5, he was playing boogie-woogie at local clubs, and he was soon performing regularly at the Apollo Theater in Harlem and on television, making his first recording at the age of 12.
In 1956, he and his sisters Salome and Geraldine formed the group Andy Bey and the Bey Sisters (also called Andy and the Bey Sisters). After they broke up, Bey collaborated in the 1960s and 1970s with other artists and produced some solo material. That was followed by a long recording hiatus - lasting more than 20 years.
Bey returned to the studio in 1996 to make the album Ballads, Blues & Bey, working with a new producer, Herb Jordan. In 2004, Bey came out with the album some call his best, American Song, and last fall he released the live recording Ain't Necessarily So.
Bey has earned the respect of those in the know. Critics and tastemakers fall over themselves commending his interpretations and his voice. This month, the Jazz Journalists Association voted Bey male singer of the year. And music royalty ranging from Aretha Franklin to Sarah Vaughan to Nina Simone have all, well, sung his praises.
"In my opinion, I think he is the best - certainly the most creative - male jazz vocalist working today," says John Orysik, spokesman for Vancouver's jazz festival. "It's breathtaking to hear him sing."
Bey's signature bass-baritone voice remains in fine form. He takes care of it, he says, with breathing exercises and healthy choices. He has never smoked, he has a healthy diet (he's a vegetarian) and when it comes to drinking, he goes heavy on the fruit juice. Despite being HIV-positive, he says he is feeling healthy - physically and otherwise.
"I might not have the brute strength that I had when I was in my 30s, but in some ways I've got much more wisdom now because I can make better choices." He says. "I didn't know the stuff I know now when I was in my 30s - or in my 40s for that matter."
He's talking about pacing, voice dynamics, rhythm, his piano playing - all things he worked on while he dropped out of sight, and continues to work on.
Bey is a big believer in personal growth, but scoffs at quick and easy self-help solutions found on bookstore shelves or on television. Over the years, he says, he has developed a keen awareness of his weaknesses as well as the gifts he has been given.
"Salvation is a very personal journey. It's not instant and nobody can teach you salvation," he says, adding: "I feel that I'm aware that I'm not there, and that's really the important thing - to be aware if you do have the shortcomings. You have to learn to accept the ugly parts of you."
Despite his widely-acknowledged talent, Bey has not had the kind of commercial success that many of his contemporaries have enjoyed. He recently moved out of his home in Chelsea to the more affordable Inwood neighbourhood in north Manhattan. He admits that he still struggles, after all these years in the business. But he says there's no part of him that feels bitter about the fame and fortune that other people have achieved while he didn't. He knows that happiness does not come from a royalty cheque, or a profile in People magazine.
What makes him happy? "Just being aware of what I'm feeling each day and being aware of how grateful I am to play music in spite of the so-called setbacks," he says. "Every obstacle is your friend because it can teach you more than anything else."
The Andy Bey Trio (with Joe Martin on bass and Vito Lesczak on drums) plays The Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts at 7:30 tonight. The TD Canada Trust Vancouver International Jazz Festival wraps up tomorrow.