Gregory Porter: Jazz's Next Great Male Vocalist
Embracing the struggle between joy and pain
Gregory Porter was only three songs into his first set when members of the enthusiastic audience at Smoke, an elegant jazz supper club on New York City’s Upper West Side, began requesting “1960 What?,” a charged political song off his debut disc, Water. The album, which earned Porter a Grammy nomination and other accolades, dropped in 2010, and already the singer has a signature tune.
Earlier in the set, Porter treated the packed house to a rousing rendition of “Be Good (Lion’s Song),” a gentle jazz waltz that is the title track of his just-released sophomore disc, and “On My Way to Harlem,” another new gem. Drummer Emanuel Harrold and bassist Aaron James revved up a stomping post-Motown groove, while pianist Chip Crawford hammered the pithy melody and Yoske Sato unfurled counterpoint on alto saxophone. Soon Porter’s robust baritone entered the fray, and he crooned the song’s themes of gentrification and cultural displacement. The momentum heightened Porter’s rapturous lament and inspired many listeners to clap vintage double-time, house-party style. After the song ended, the audience’s fervent applause indicated that Porter has yet another signature song.
Toward the end of the set, Porter hit another high point with “Mother’s Song,” a tune that’s been in his repertoire for some time but hadn’t made it onto a recording until Be Good. As a finale, Porter sang the song that nearly everyone had been waiting for.
As soon as James strummed out the hypnotic, four-note ostinato on bass, fans jolted with frenzied excitement. The rest of the band joined him as Porter moaned some bluesy notes before repeatedly shouting, “1960 what?”
“Hey! The Motor City is burning!” Porter bellowed with the fervor of a preacher in the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 assassination. The song crested to a blistering apex, at which Sato unleashed a wicked saxophone solo. The ensemble eventually quelled the action, allowing Porter to end his first set.
The enthusiasm surrounding Porter’s performance at Smoke on this early December evening suggested someone who is much more than just another hot newcomer. With only one release and through word of mouth, he’s developed a cult following worldwide. The fact that fans know his repertoire, much of it built on bracing originals, attests to his vitality. When he sings and engages the audience in congenial repartee, the 40-year-old singer-songwriter exudes the ease of a veteran. And no matter how much beauty or brimstone fuels his singing—and despite his celebrated work as a theater performer comfortable on Broadway stages—Porter sidesteps the vocal histrionics and forcefully pained expressions that some lesser talents often use to convey “soulfulness.” There’s a very popular and profitable space where the theater intersects with true-blue jazz singing, but Gregory Porter opts for the latter. He’s the real deal.
In conversation, he emits the same charisma. He answers questions with the same thoughtfulness and honesty that shine through his lyrics. Dressed in a dark suit and his customary dual headgear of stocking cap and black Kangol hat—the combination perfectly frames his round, espresso-tinted face and beard—Porter has a brawny physique that suggests a once-prized athlete. Sure enough, before he committed himself to singing, he initially attended San Diego State University on a football scholarship. But an injury sidelined the once promising outside linebacker.
As he details the making of Be Good and reflects on all the critical acclaim he’s received so far, Porter is as grateful as he is levelheaded. “It’s been amazing. I’m not weighed down heavy with cash,” he laughs. “But you create something and you just put it out there.”
During the last couple of years, Porter has experienced some career-defining moments that suggest great staying power. In October, he performed with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra as part of the trumpeter’s weeklong 50th birthday celebration. There, he sang a couple of numbers from Marsalis’ Pulitzer Prize-winning Blood on the Fields. Porter has been developing a fruitful professional relationship with the JLCO ever since he attended a 2005 jam session hosted by the orchestra’s drummer, Ali Jackson.
Porter remembers almost getting left out of the invitation-only event. But once he mentioned that he had worked with the legendary flutist Hubert Laws, Jackson welcomed Porter to the stage, where the singer brought the house down with a rendition of Nat Adderley and Oscar Brown Jr.’s “Work Song.” “Normally jazz singers can make or break any jam session, because usually you have to cater everything to them,” says Jackson. “Unlike most tangible things that many singers have, his sound was like no one else’s I had really heard.”
Four months prior to the “Wynton at 50” performance, Porter headlined the “Jazz Meets Soul” concert at New York’s Highline Ballroom as part of the Blue Note Jazz Festival. In July, he sang at the Blue Note as a last-minute replacement for Mitch Winehouse, who had to cancel because of the untimely death of his daughter, Amy Winehouse. At what then became a tribute to the troubled British R&B and jazz singer, Porter reportedly moved the audience with his somber original composition “The Way You Want to Live,” a soulful cautionary tale, also featured on Be Good, that you could easily imagine Winehouse singing.
As we talk at Smoke, Porter is a few days away from a performance in the BBC-recorded Carole King and Friends at Christmas at London’s Stoke Newington Town Hall. There he’ll sing “Up on the Roof.” It’s interesting to note that Porter has seized greater visibility and performance opportunities overseas, particularly in Russia, Japan and in the U.K., than he has in the U.S. “I’m not going over there aping some fake shit; they sense the authenticity,” Porter theorizes. “They’re a knowledgeable audience. They’ll tell you who you are in a way.”
Porter is also, like his jazz contemporaries José James and Gretchen Parlato, turning heads in the DJ culture. Stockholm-based DJ and producer Peter “Opolopo” Major helped open those doors with his “Kick & Bass Rerub” of “1960 What?” Major originally did an edit of the song for his own personal DJing use. “Every time I played it, I always thought that it could work in more of a club environment if only it had some kind of beat under it. It’s quite an accessible song even though it’s serious jazz with powerful lyrics,” Major says. The producer uploaded the song on his Soundcloud profile alongside the original, so that people could discover Porter. The day after he posted his remix he got an e-mail from Motéma Music. “I thought, ‘Uh oh! Someone is going to ask me to take it down,’” Major says. Fortunately, the label liked the remix enough to officially release it.
Italian-born guitarist, DJ and producer Nicola Conte recruited Porter to sing the sunny “Do You Feel Like I Feel” and an ebullient makeover of Jackie McLean’s “Ghana” on his latest release, Love & Revolution (Impulse!). Conte learned of Porter through Nailah Porter (no relation), one of the other guest vocalists on the album. “When I listened to [Water], I found a lot of things that I could immediately relate to,” Conte says.
“What I found very impressive is that his choices in jazz were some of the same choices I made have lately for my own music, this kind of black jazz vibe of the post-modal ’60s, and the more political approach to music. Gregory really delivers the kind of classical African-American jazz singing, ranging from Andy Bey to Bill Henderson and many others, including Leon Thomas. At the same time, Gregory can be a very fine crooner like Lou Rawls and other people who were doing soul music but were coming from a jazz angle.”
Conte’s statement about Porter delivering “classical African-American jazz singing” hits on another, more delicate facet of the singer’s singular value. He and James (who also appears on Conte’s Love & Revolution) are two of the few relatively young black male jazz singers who’ve attracted mainstream media attention and recording contracts with notable labels in recent years. Porter shies away from the argument that it’s solely because of his race that he, like James, has gained popularity more efficiently in Europe and Japan than in the U.S., but he does say that being a black artist, who shades jazz with more R&B than pop, won’t yield high praise from the jazz establishment.
Critics and vocal fans will have a hard time ignoring or negating Be Good, however. Porter improves on the formula set by his previous album, retaining his core band and showcasing heartfelt, oftentimes deeply personal songs that nevertheless resonate on many levels. In addition to road-tested songs such as “Mother’s Song,” “Be Good (Lion’s Song)” and “On My Way to Harlem,” the disc contains several originals that would become 21st-century jazz standards if only that book were still open.
Those songs include the sensual “When Did You Learn,” which explores the joy of being in love with someone who has zero reservations about being in a relationship; the dazzling “Bling Bling,” the disc’s most explicitly jazzy number and one where Porter sings about the dilemma of being rich with love but having no one to give it to; and the enchanting “Painted on Canvas,” which deals with how adults project negative and positive attributes onto innocent children. “The things I write most passionately about are my personal experiences and about people I’ve had contact with,” Porter says. “Is that always true? No. But I can write about a broken heart because I’ve had it. I can write about adversity because I’ve had it. I can write about true love because I’ve had it.”
“[Porter] writes ingenious lyrics,” Crawford enthuses. “If he didn’t have any melody, harmony or a voice, his lyrics would stand on their own. That’s a gift, because for so many musicians, lyrics are an afterthought.”
Kamau Kenyatta, Porter’s early mentor, returns as associate producer of the new disc. He played a crucial role on Water as a producer and arranger, and he quite possibly knows Porter’s strengths as singer and songwriter better than anyone else. He views Porter as a “big-picture person,” noting that he’s not an insular artist who is solely concerned with music. “You can spend a day with him and music might not even come up,” Kenyatta says. “He’s very versed in many subjects. I think that leads to the kind of creativity that he has. He’s not just sitting around thinking about singing and of singers. He’s up on current events and he has a very insightful way of looking at life.”
Ace producer Brian Bacchus also came aboard for the new disc. One of the things that Bacchus insisted on was that Porter keep his existing band intact. In addition to his bandmates at Smoke, tenor saxophonist Tivon Pennicott and trumpeter Keyon Harrold appear on several tracks. “There is something to be said about mixing different musical personalities,” Bacchus argues. “In a sense, Gregory is really a singer-songwriter. I look at him as someone coming out of a Bill Withers mode but with a jazz group. In that case, it’s really important that you keep together whatever your band is.”
The chemistry Porter forges with his playing has been developing since 2005, when he started singing Tuesdays at Harlem’s recently closed St. Nick’s Pub. “I like people’s individual, musical charisma,” he says. “And it doesn’t matter if it’s charisma that’s known all over the world or if it’s just charisma that’s known at St. Nick’s Pub.” He also speaks of the benefits of sharing the backstories of many of his original compositions with his band.
“When I sing ‘Mother’s Song,’ I’ve talked so much about my mother that my band understands my mother,” says Porter. “They know that she comes from a church background. So in the solo, the music shouldn’t go into something that sounds like rock. It should probably go into something that has a little church feel to it, because that’s the root and the core to who she was.”
Indeed, Ruth Porter, the singer’s late mother, who was once an evangelist in the Church of God & Christ, plays a vital role in Porter’s artistry. She was the one who encouraged a 5-year-old Gregory after he sang his first-ever self-penned tune, “Once Upon a Time I Had a Dreamboat.” “She creeps up in a lot of places in my art, whether I want her there or not,” Porter says.
He then shares a fond family memory about a particular Thanksgiving. Porter was in seventh grade, living with his seven siblings in Bakersfield, Calif. His mother prepared an extravagant meal that included two turkeys with all the trimmings, then gathered the family to pray over the food. But instead of dining, she loaded the food into her car and fed the homeless. Afterward, she brought the remaining food to her kids. “At the time, we were outraged,” Porter recalls. “But now, it’s like this golden memory. She was teaching us. It’s an honor to have the leftovers of a Thanksgiving dinner from people who don’t have. That’s dope! She was a great, great woman.”
Porter didn’t see much of his late father, Rufus Porter. The singer referenced his father’s absence pointedly in his semi-autobiographical musical from 2004, Nat King Cole and Me, in which the singer adopted the jazz icon as a patriarchal figure. Even though the musical is a highly personal one, Porter says that its central themes are universal.
“Everybody had some issues with their father, even if he was in the house. He may have been emotionally absent. My father was just straight-up absent,” Porter explains. “I hung out with him just a few days in my life. And it wasn’t a long time. He just didn’t seem to be completely interested in being there. Maybe he was, I don’t know.” Porter has been working on a song dedicated to his father, “Man on a Ladder,” based on memories of visiting his dad and seeing him paint houses. “That’s for a later project,” he reveals.
Although Porter says that he annoyed his siblings with his constant singing while growing up in Bakersfield and Los Angeles, they’ve been very supportive of his music career. In fact, he made his official move to Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood with his brother, Lloyd, in late 2004. Lloyd had opened the now-defunct café, Bread-Stuy, where Porter became chef. He also performed there, and performed at other Bed-Stuy haunts such as Solomon’s Porch and Sista’s Space before making his way to St. Nick’s.
Nat King Cole may have been Porter’s first jazz lodestar during his childhood, but it wasn’t until he attended college that he seriously got into jazz. Saxophonist Daniel Jackson and Kenyatta became his first mentors. Interestingly, he met Kenyatta by way of trombonist and educator George Lewis, who heard Porter scat at a jam session with some of his students at the University of California, San Diego. Although Porter was a city-planning student at San Diego State, Lewis invited him to attend one of his classes. When Porter arrived, Lewis wasn’t there; Kenyatta was teaching. Porter was the only singer in class but he held his own by scatting and vocalizing over Miles Davis’ “So What.” After class, Kenyatta pulled Porter to the side and recommended that they work together on music.
It was through Kenyatta that Porter landed his recording debut with Laws. Kenyatta was working with the flutist’s 1998 disc, Hubert Laws Remembers the Unforgettable Nat King Cole (RKO) and encouraged Porter to sing the Charlie Chaplin classic “Smile.” During that session, Porter met Laws’ sisters, Debra and Eloise Laws, who were performing in the musical revue It Ain’t Nothing But the Blues, and they urged Porter to audition, even though he had only been in one other musical, Avenue X.
Porter remembers being ill prepared for the tryout. He didn’t know the exact location; he didn’t know what song he was singing; he didn’t even have a proper head shot. But he recalled a phrase that his mother always used to say and made an impromptu blues number out of it. It landed him a role and gave Porter an opportunity to perform both on and off-Broadway. The musical eventually won a Tony and a Drama Desk Award. In addition to his own subsequent Nat King Cole and Me, Porter continued to explore musical theater by performing in such revered pieces as Low Down Dirty Blues and The Civil War.
Perhaps it’s his years in theater that account for Porter’s magnetic presence on the stage. After nabbing TV engagements on Late Night with David Letterman, The Rosie O’Donnell Show and The Today Show, he clearly could have mapped out a formidable career in theater. Nevertheless, jazz grabbed him.
Still, underneath his gregarious, professional exterior, self-doubt lurks unexpectedly. Much of it comes from Porter’s peculiar career trajectory. “Sometimes I have these moments of insecurity, right after I’ve had a great triumph,” he says. “I still feel like I’m very much a student; I think I will always feel that way. I offer my offerings, and it’s not an insecure offering, it’s just, ‘This is me.’ I let other people judge it.”
Originally published in March 2012