Chief Bey / April 17, 1913 - April 8, 2004

The Muslim-American multi-instrumentalist and folklorist Chief Bey contributed some heavy percussion to the ethno-jazz scene from the '50s until just weeks before his death in 2004. He was born James Hawthorne Bey in the area of Beaufort SC and grew up in Brooklyn & Harlem.

In the '50s he toured internationally in a production of Porgy & Bess (with Cab Calloway and Leontyne Price. Around 1951 he cut his first session as a bandleader, although it was credited to "Cawanda's group" (the exotica cash-in LP Taboo). In '59 he appeared on Olatunji's Afro smash-hit record Drums of Passion and went on to work and appear with 'Tunji and other such heavy cultural jazz cats as Guy Warren, Harry Belafonte, Herbie Mann, Art Blakey (his afro-percussion ensembles), Ahmed Abdul-Malik, Miriam Makeba, Solomon Ilori, Pharoah Sanders (check him on the classics Thembi and Izipho Zam), Ray Barretto, the mystical psychedelic group Arica, guitarist Howard Roberts, Kwame Nkrumah, Plunky Branch & Okeryema Asante of Oneness of Juju, Randy Weston, World Saxophone Quartet and several collaborations with WSQ member Hamiet Bluiett.

He also recorded an album called Congo Percussion with his own ensemble Chief Bey & His Royal Household. He recorded later albums for Soul Note and Mapleshade. Bey was a first call for authentic African percussion and his arsenal included asiko, shekere, congas, gongs, Batá, chanting and he even contributed a few original compositions to some of the above records. He appeared on Broadway a few times and even made on-screen appearances in the '90s Brooklyn-themed flicks Smoke and Blue In The Face. A teacher and cultural heavy until the end, his music covered jazz, Afro-Cuban, African roots, new age, gospel and highlife musics.

With the scant few records under Bey's leadership easily available via Youtube, I've chosen this tune from Pharoah Sanders' classic Thembi album. You can hear Bey as part of a battery of African percussionists:

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