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the new negro spiritual: andy bey’s “celestial blues”

June 19, 2019
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Jazz has always been my personal safe space. I don’t quite believe in material safe spaces — those theoretical sanctuaries in the world that we’re supposed to believe exist. And even in my own musical consumption, I don’t look for safety. I look for risky reflections of my own emotional life and perhaps perspectives I never knew. Jazz, however, has always been a space of familiarity for me. From the splendid keys of Thelonius Monk to the abstract odysseys of Kamasi Washington and everything in between, jazz has felt like the ultimate return to the safety of home. Even if that safety was discovered in the spiritual travels of Alice Coltrane or the futuristic sci-fi explorations of Sun Ra — or something more quaint but just as encompassing like the vocals of Sarah Vaughn, or the sweet exchanges between Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong that now decorate my most joyful childhood memories.

Andy Bey is an artist I discovered later, in the jazz-digging days of adulthood. In all my years as a jazz lover, I  had never experienced this type of home so immediately. Bey is a once-in-a-generation male jazz vocalist equipped with a four-octave vocal range, and a sensibility that brings together experimental, avant-garde elements with classic jazz tastes, creating a full, rich experience.

Born and bred in Newark, NJ, Bey — the youngest of nine children — cut, his first record, “Little Boy Blues” and performed at the Apollo Theater by the age of 12. He was regarded as a prodigy because of his masterful control of his voice and the piano. His voice has had many lives; in the 1960s he performed with his sisters Salome and Geraldine in the vocal group Andy and The Bey Sisters learning how to better blend his bass-baritone vocals with those of women. As time went on, Andy Bey’s music got more cosmic, more funky, more concerned with spiritualist themes than romantic ones, and for me inside of my teenage fascination with sci-fi and modes of belief that did not include religion, he felt even more like home.

The motivation for Andy Bey’s turn to galactic and the spiritual was even more moving and made me feel even more at home: Andy Bey is openly gay and living with HIV (he was diagnosed in 1994). Although already on a type of sonic and spiritual journey that mirrored the ones of Roy Ayers, Pharaoh Sanders, Alice Coltrane, and Sun Ra, his diagnosis in 1994 only reaffirmed his commitment to wellness in both his physical and celestial body. 1974’s Experience and Judgment was my first experience with his work, and it was “Celestial Blues” that lived in my body like gospel: “We must get closer to the essence of life, but be aware that it takes courage and strife. Expand your mind, don’t let it wither and die. You’ll find it lifts your spirit high to the sky. C’mon, meditate.” I was born in 1991 and found Andy Bey’s music in my young adulthood, but his 70’s affirmations overwhelmed my spirit and was never removed. 

“Celestial Blues” became a reminder, an internalized chant to move closer to a spiritual practice. And it was authored by someone that looked and lived like me, and it was wrapped inside of music that I found home and safety inside of. It assisted my own move toward a state of being that felt more whole; where the psychic and the political didn’t have to live separate from one another, but instead assisted one another to help me better navigate life.  

Andy Bey is an artist that didn’t crack the world — the mainstream — but cracked something in the cosmos and did it inside of an identity that still, to this day, isn’t embraced on this earthly realm. Even today, at the age of 79, Andy Bey is still attracting new audiences that are mesmerized by his message and his talent. With one listen it is clear, Andy Bey might be from space, but his legacy and his work will never be lost in space.