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Percussionist Chief Bey Dies

James Hawthorne Bey, a jazz percussionist known as Chief Bey who played on sessions led by Art Blakey, Pharoah Sanders, Hamiett Bluiett and others, died April 8 at his home in Brooklyn, N.Y. of stomach cancer. He was 91.

Born James Hawthorne in Yamassee, S.C. in 1913, Bey moved to New York City with his family at an early age, first living in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn and later in Harlem, where he strated on drums and sang in church choirs. He served in the Navy during World War II and later attended cosmetology school. He added Bey to his name after joining a Muslim sect.

In the 1950s Bey toured the world with a production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess that starred opera singer Leontyne Price and jazz-band leader/singer Cab Calloway. By the 1960s Bey was picking up session work and was appearing on albums like drummer Blakey’s African Beat (Blue Note, 1962) and saxophonist Sanders’ Izipho Zam (Charly, 1969). He also played on two live albums cut at New York’s Village Gate by flutist Herbie Mann. Mapleshade Records released Bey’s sole leader recording, Children of the House of God, in 1997.

In the 1970s Bey began working in theater; he played an African drummer in the Broadway musical Raisin. He also had appearances in the 1995 films Smoke and Blue in the Face.

Bey eventually became an educator and taught the shekere, a West African drum, at the Griot Institute at Intermediate School 246 in Brooklyn, where his students called him Chief Bey.

Originally Published