James Hawthorne Bey, a jazz percussionist and African folklorist who recorded with such artists as Art Blakey and Herbie Mann before turning to teaching, died April 8 in Brooklyn of stomach cancer. He was 91.
Bey, known to his students and on recordings as Chief Bey, was born James Hawthorne in Yamassee, S.C. As a boy, he moved with his family to Brooklyn and then to Harlem, where he began playing drums and singing in church choirs.
In the 1950s, he performed in an international tour of “Porgy and Bess” starring Leontyne Price and Cab Calloway. He also began a busy recording career, appearing on Mann’s “At the Village Gate” (1961) and Blakey’s “The African Beat” (1962) as well as on albums by Harry Belafonte, Pharoah Saunders and others.
He made several theatrical and film appearances, performing as an African drummer in the Broadway musical “Raisin,” which ran from 1973 to 1975, and as a Brooklyn resident in the 1995 films “Smoke” and “Blue in the Face.”
In his 80s, he taught the shekere, a West African percussion instrument, at the Griot Institute at Intermediate School 246 in Brooklyn. Bey continued drumming in public as recently as October, when he performed at a drum symposium at New York University.