Over my past two decades as an avid habitué of the New York City concert scene, I’ve come to terms with the bittersweet joys of attending performances by fading icons. I’m not referring to final shows from musicians who left us unexpectedly and were still at their peak, or even those who have found consistent, arena-size audiences to sustain them well into their AARP years.
I’m thinking instead of greats who continued, for money or love, to play past anyone’s estimation of their best days. I’ve seen Little Richard valiantly battle his way through a painful bout of onstage sciatic nerve pain and Jerry Lee Lewis gamely (if stiffly) pulling his foot up onto the piano for what is now a 60-year-old shtick. I’ve seen Ornette Coleman sit and recuperate between solos, catching precious breath on the fly. When country pioneer Porter Wagoner forgot his own lyrics at a concert less than a year before his death from lung cancer, I joined an audience that lovingly and gently buoyed him up until the words came back. It’s the mix of compassion for the experience of age, the indelible pleasures of nostalgia, and the undeniable embers of genius still smoldering through the decades that makes these late live sets so potent.
With all that in mind, I am here to praise Caesar and not bury him, so I strongly recommend you not miss the opportunity to catch soul and jazz powerhouse Andy Bey at his current ongoing residency at Club 75. It may be your best last chance.
Hearing Andy Bey cover Nat King Cole, Jerome Kern, and Oscar Hammerstein in such a setting was a lovely, only–in–New York sort of indulgence, a memory that even a casual fan of jazz should treasure.
Newark, New Jersey–born Andrew Wideman Bey came to public prominence in his teens as the pianist and vocalist for Andy and the Bey Sisters, an internationally acclaimed cabaret combo comprised of Bey and his two singing siblings. The trio toured and recorded three albums throughout the 1960s before disbanding. Playing those tracks today, even a superficial listen reveals Bey’s sage patience and fluency on the keys and, in his spotlight moments, his arresting and sui generis baritone, a four-octave instrument notable for its clarity and emotion as much as for its formidable range. Bey would go on to record with a who’s who of 20th-century jazz figures, including Max Roach, Horace Silver, Gary Bartz, and Stanley Clarke; he has, perhaps apocryphally, also been cited as one of John Coltrane’s favorite vocalists.
In 1974, Bey released his first and only solo album of original material, the remarkably bold Experience and Judgement. It is this underrated classic that first introduced me to the artist and remains among my favorite desert island gems. Taken on its own musical merits, E&J is a hip, funky, and occasionally rococo masterpiece that anticipates the genre blindness and grounding of the contemporary neo-soul movement. With its language of self-actualization, heartfelt desire, and vibrant optimism, “You Should’ve Seen the Way” would hardly be out of place on a 2019 EP from Khalid or Kehlani.
He was one of John Coltrane’s favorite vocalists.
Though he continued to gig on various projects over the next 15-plus years, Bey produced almost no recorded solo work. Maybe it’s this lack of individual output that has left a musician and composer of his considerable talents largely unrecognized within the jazz establishment, but, in a field governed by considerable machismo, I suspect Bey’s courageous openness as a gay man unequally contributed to his unjust obscurity. Regardless, his resilient determination in the face of an HIV-positive diagnosis and the independent recording boom of the ’90s seem to have sparked a rush of productivity, as he went on to release some seven albums of beautifully rendered American Songbook standards throughout his 50s and 60s; many of these are readily available on streaming platforms today. This later work finds Bey displaying even more complex vocal color and depth, giving classics like the Gershwins’ “Ain’t Necessarily So” and Nick Drake’s “River Man” tremendous gravitas.
Over a dozen concerts, I came to trust him as a bulletproof live performer, a reliable revelation anytime he was on the marquee.
When I finally found my way to see Bey live at his gigs at Zinc Bar or the Blue Note in the mid-2000s, he demolished me with a fully mature voice that was all caramel, smoke, and yearning. Over a dozen concerts, I came to trust him as a bulletproof live performer, a reliable revelation anytime he was on the marquee. But nothing is forever and, a few years ago, I strung together two or three poor showings in a row, nights when Bey’s mind would wander onstage, that impossible voice would falter, and notes he had played some thousand times before seemed halting. It can happen to the very best of us and now I feared it truly was.
So when I heard about this latest downtown run at a relatively new venue I hadn’t yet visited, I was a bit worried about the potential of seeing someone I loved lacking. With his history of greatness in mind, I decided to take the plunge once more with the 79-year-old Mr. Bey. I’m very glad I did.
The atmosphere of the venue certainly helped. The unassuming and literally underground 75 Club is a spacious and acoustically friendly bar with old-school accoutrements and a swank feel. A reasonably priced menu, a knowledgeable bartender, and a rock-bottom $20 cover all set the table nicely for the experience. The audience was sparse but deeply attentive and included fans of some repute, such as jazz historian Ashley Kahn. I brought along a friend to the early set who had never heard of Bey, but we both walked away impressed with the artist’s now-elderly poise, balanced delivery, and glimmers of incendiary talent. Hearing Bey cover Nat King Cole, Jerome Kern, and Oscar Hammerstein in such a setting (and for such a low price) was a lovely, only–in–New York sort of indulgence, a memory that even a casual fan of jazz should treasure.
Andy Bey: Solo Piano
The 75 Club
75 Murray Street (between West Broadway and Greenwich Street), Tribeca
Thursdays in June and ongoing
Sets at 8 and 9:30 p.m.