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Bey Day

Queen Bey's still here, damn it.

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Sad thing about smallish towns: The greats leave.

But when Kansas City life force Queen Bey titled her Bar Natasha revue I'm Still Here, she wasn't talking geography.

"When you stay home, you get branded as local," says Bey, a native we'd probably call a jazz institution if institution didn't imply a museum's stuffiness or that she — or her art — were history.

Not that Kansas City hasn't been good for her. At a recent production of The Watsons Go to Birmingham (the moving Coterie show in which she plays a stern but loving grandmother; see "Man Power," October 13), she earned a standing ovation from folks she'd known back at Sumner High School.

But her aspirations take her away. "Kansas City's been very supportive, but I'm an ambitious woman, and Europe holds tightly to jazz," Bey says. After Watsons, she has gigs scheduled in Italy; throughout 2006, she'll barnstorm the globe as Bessie Smith in a one-woman show she penned herself.

With I'm Still Here, she promises an autobiographical cabaret full of the songs she loves as well as the tales of her ups and downs. "There'll be laughter and talking, and I might cry," she says. "I'll be telling the truth and being human."

It's been a full-blooded life. Bey wrote her first song — "Mama Needs Loving, Baby" — at age 11, for Linda Hopkins. She sang with Billie, Dinah and Ella. She's been named "America's Jazz Ambassador" by no less an authority than the country of Germany. Isaac Hayes gives her diet tips. After catching her in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, August Wilson told her she was the best Rainey he'd ever seen. "And I'm not just saying that because he's gone," Bey says. (Here she goes quiet, then says Wilson's recent passing broke her heart.)

"He probably said that to all of them, anyway," she says, and then lets loose a rich, long laugh. A laugh with music in it.

Queen Bey stuffs each moment with life. Catch her this Monday while she's still here.

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