Courage, Literature, Music, and Sorrow: Pages from An Imaginary Life by Andy Bey

By Daniel Garrett

Andy Bey, Pages from An Imaginary Life
Produced by Andy Bey / Executive Producer Joe Fields
Highnote Records, 2014

Andy Bey’s discography is long, going back to the 1950s, and has in it Experience and Judgment (1973) and Ballads, Blues & Bey (1996), Shades of Bey (1998), and The World According to Andy Bey (2013).  Writing about a live Bey performance at Joe’s Pub for a 2007 article for The New York Times, Nate Chinen said, “Mr. Bey was just beginning to receive his due a decade ago, after the sleeper success of a marvelous album called Ballads, Blues & Bey.  Now rightly understood as one of the great jazz singers of our time, he was then emerging from a long obscurity and embarking on a bright new era” (October 27, 2007).  The authority of an artist is grounded in craft, thought, and expression: “His voice is still an extraordinary instrument, capable of foggy depths, penetrating highs and a sort of mezzo-falsetto that stretches his supple baritone into the alto range.  He has an equally broad command of timbre and gives himself a lot of space to work with, often slowing tempos to a crawl,” wrote Nate Chinen.  The experiences, efforts, experiments, and evaluations that shape a particular sensibility are usually beyond the view of most people, who do not know how much work goes into what they take to be pure pleasure.  One test of an artist is his or her ability to rise to the challenge of demanding material—and a singer such as Andy Bey rises to that level of rigor, able to explore lyrics of reason and romance.  “There’s a line between love and fascination / that’s hard to see, on an evening such as this,” are lines from the well-known song “My Foolish Heart.”  Grave and thoughtful—that is singer Andy Bey’s rendition of “My Foolish Heart,” a song about temptation, desire, and the beginning of love: there is wariness, the wariness of experience, and more wariness than hope in the recognition.

Andy Bey sings and plays piano; and his album Pages from an Imaginary Life features songs that have become standards of early twentieth-century popular music and also Andy Bey’s own philosophical and spiritual musical pieces.  Another composition—“How Long Has This Been Going On?”—is an intelligent song, giving eloquence to the thrill and tension of romance, of erotic adventure and tenderness, of discovery of what is possible between two people; and Andy Bey’s phrasing is full of care.  Andy Bey’s composition “Jealousy” is analytical, with a fast rhythm, and the theatricality emerges in the meeting of the serious subject and the expressive singing.  Jealousy is seen as a sickness that is part of a field of limited responses—misery and paranoia—that obscures honest self-perception and wastes time.  Bey’s insistence is a believable assertion of self, of experience and consciousness, in “I’ve Got a Right to Sing the Blues.”  Yet, despair is worrying—suicidal, in the lyric citation of the call of the deep blue sea.  To claim one’s pain is to claim one’s individuality and integrity—and the fact that they have been assaulted; and to claim the blues is to claim not only sorrow and survival but also a surpassing wit.

If you have to strength to accept the worst—the struggle, the disappointment, and pain—that life has to offer, you may have the strength achieve the best, the most joy.  That is the contemplation, freedom, and transcendence allowed to artists such as Bey, who writes his own songs and performs the standards established by others.  I recall a character, the singer Arthur in James Baldwin’s fiction Just Above My Head, who was worried about how the men in his life and world—his father and brother but also the musicians in the music tradition in which Arthur worked, the gospel, blues, and jazz world, saw him, Arthur, a man whose emotional and erotic affinities were for other men; Arthur, who was adapting songs for a larger society engaged by popular music.  Would Arthur still be allowed to sing the blues he had inherited, as he had inherited it?  I’ve got a right to sing the blues.  Would other men approve of what he, Arthur, had done to their songs?  I’ve got a right to sing the blues.  Was the song he was handing on something of use?  And I think of Glenn Ligon, a visual artist who had grown up in the South Bronx, where so much of rap music originated, and who talked about ideas and literature, about what we claim for ourselves: “I also grew up around appropriation and text.  Why write your own when there are texts in the world?  Appropriating text is a way of getting certain ideas into the work directly.  In a way it’s very straightforward—like, ‘Oh, I want these ideas in my work; well, just use them.’” (Interview with Nikita Gale, Arts Atlanta, January 7, 2013).

“The jazz world is one of the last cultural frontiers of old-fashioned macho, and in it, homophobia runs rampant,” wrote James Gavin in the article “Homophobia in Jazz,” which discussed self-declared gay artists such as Andy Bey and Billy Strayhorn, Fred Hersch, Gary Burton, Patricia Barber, as well as earlier generations of bisexual or gay artists, such as Bessie Smith and Stephane Grappelli, Ralph Burns, Tiny Davis, and Ruby Lucas, an article for JazzTimes (December 2001).  For years hateful prohibitions and propaganda, courtesy of religion, law, and education, were helped by the absences and silences in culture and civic society: homosexuals were not known, and homosexual practices were maligned.  The sexual revolution—including feminism and gay liberation—began to change that.  “There’s homophobia, there is racism, there is sexism in the real world.  The jazz world is a microcosm of the real world.  Just because people play music doesn’t mean they’re very elevated in terms of their consciousness about those things.  And just because you’re gay doesn’t mean you’re gonna be more sensitive,” pianist Fred Hersch was quoted as saying, attributing discomfort with certain facts of gender and sexuality more to insecurity than to malice.  Andy Bey claimed his sexuality and health status (HIV positive) in 1996 with interviews with National Public Radio and Out magazine; and explained to James Gavin, “I knew I had talent whether I was straight or gay.  It was liberating, because I didn’t have to hide anymore.”

“The bass-baritone voice of the jazz singer Andy Bey is elemental and complicated, a purr and a pushed-out moan, a compound of tones from different parts of his body,” began a note by Ben Ratliff about Andy Bey in the New York Times (September 12, 2014), going on to say, “His dark, slow and trenchant sound can feel almost supernatural, even when he’s singing the most familiar repertory in American music,” before telling the reader to see Bey perform live at a club in the East Village.  “The sense of intimacy—the stark piano and exquisitely naked voice—might feel too close for some, but it’s their loss,” admitted Kevin Lynch, reviewing Bey’s Pages from an Imaginary Life for the online magazine No Depression (December 26, 2014); but Bey, Lynch said, “he has strength enough to turn pain or complex emotion inside out, so it’s beautiful and moving for you, rather than merely private.  His roomy baritone of many octaves often massages a lyric with a tender graininess and sometimes hoists it into an aching yowl.  Yet he does so intelligently, with the wisdom of lived life.”

Brash and reflective, cynical and suggestive is “Love for Sale,” one of the songs on Andy Bey’s Pages from An Imaginary Life, and an apt song for a capitalist society—which conveys circumstance, appearance, and existential state: mercenary with a hurt heart.  “Worried Life Blues” is a downbeat ballad of love and memory, of resignation (the determination to leave someone behind); and Bey gives the lines force, so the song lives.  Advice to be open, flexible, is offered in “Bad Luck May Be Good Luck,” a Bey song that emphasizes the significance of interpreting one’s own experience, of developing understanding and correcting one’s own attitude.  “Lover Come Back to Me” is a request made with intensity.

“Good Morning Heartache” is vivid.  Surprisingly pessimistic social analysis is given, making plain power and exploitation, in “Dog Eat Dog,” an Arlen and Mercer song.  Honest and practical, “Humor Keeps Us Alive,” has Bey using the age in his voice for emphasis as well as testament, giving authority to perspective.  I would have liked more musical accompaniment for “Take the ‘A’ Train,” although Bey’s piano playing is as good here as elsewhere.

Andy Bey makes his presence felt—aware, intense—in “Everything I Have Is Yours.”  The limits of fame and wealth—the need for self-protection and the freedom of spirit despite surveillance and suspicion—are themes in “All That Glitter’s Not Gold.”  Andy Bey concludes Pages from an Imaginary Life with “All Roads Lead Back to You,” a Billy Strayhorn composition—“Lotus Blossom”—for which Allan Roy has written lyrics.  So much of culture is aimed for the approval of the very young, who do not know much of anything beyond their growing bodies and bright hopes—but culture, for decency and sanity as much as for intelligence and morality, must contain more than easy anger and sexual arousal and happy endings: there must be a place for maturity and wisdom.  Andy Bey has become one of the elder statesmen of American music: accomplished, approachable and bohemian but dignified, honest and shrewd, responsible and responsive—wise.

Purchasing link:    

Daniel Garrett has written about art, books, business, film, and politics, and his work has appeared in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext, Film International, Offscreen, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today, as well as The Compulsive Reader. Author contact: or