Faruq Z. Bey, 1942-2012

Against the Current, No. 160, September/October 2012

Kim D. Hunter

FARUQ Z. BEY, the recently deceased saxophonist, poet and visionary, was at the heart of a tremendous ensemble in the 1970s and ’80s called Griot Galaxy. They were also called “the best band that never left Detroit.” That may seem faint, even damning praise unless you take stock of Detroit’s disproportionate influence on the nation’s music scene. Strictly speaking, it also wasn’t true as the band and its members were travelers of the European festival circuit and had fans around the world.

Born Jesse Davis in February 1942, Bey described himself as being “ruined” in 1967 after hearing a John Coltrane recording. By the mid-’70s when I heard him, he had all but mastered the advanced speed and tonal aspects of the jazz avant-garde. A high school friend of mine had invited him and a small group to play in the context of a music and poetry event, on what used to be Detroit’s Kern Block. I was amazed that anyone in Detroit was playing jazz outside of the mainstream. Little did I know.

Bey was the center of an Afro-centric cultural group like no other in the city. It was as much a family of choice as it was a cauldron of advanced music. It’s been duly chronicled by W. Kim Heron in the (Detroit) Metro Times article, “Bey Watch” (http://www2.metrotimes.com/editorial/story.asp?id=5001). Besides being mesmerized by his music, my most vivid personal recollections of him involve listening in on and sifting through a fairly involved musical conversation he had with the great Anthony Braxton at University of Michigan, and Bey greeting and joining the African Liberation Day parade with a group of musicians he’d organized for the occasion.

Bey, like many great artists, was a paradox: a tall, dreadlocked charismatic, motorcycle-riding ladies’ man, with a dry, acerbic wit, who was also a devout Muslim instrumental in establishing mosques throughout the city and bringing many into the faith. His poetry always exacting, dense and ironic became even more so after a motorcycle accident in the mid-1980s that put him into a coma where he hovered for days between life and death.

The accident was the end of the second and most formidable incarnation of Griot Galaxy. The band had been honed down from a reed and percussion army of sometimes seven or eight to a quintet with drummer Tani Tabbal, bassist Jaribu Shahid, and sax players Anthony Holland, David McMurray and Bey. The accident not only effectively dissolved the group — just as it was starting to be ranked with the likes of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Julius Hemphill — but the closed head injury forced Bey to virtually relearn the sax.

But relearn it he did, and went on to reinvent himself as the elder statesmen of Detroit’s jazz scene in general and the avant-garde in particular, playing with the likes of Magic Poetry Band and the Northwoods Improvisors among others.

I had the honor of presenting him read poetry and play sax on many occasions. I read at a poetry event with him some two weeks before his death on June 1. Hobbled by the emphysema that finally took his life, he sat through the evening and performed with drummer James Hart and poet Will Alexander on keyboard.

It was always amazing to hear anyone play as well as he did, but doubly so for someone hooked to a portable oxygen tank. Certainly his speed was diminished but tone was as clear as ever and his poetry, an ironic paean reflecting on John Coltrane playing to a puzzled audience, as pointed as ever.

September/October 2012, ATC 160