In 2005, when Gregory Porter started singing Tuesdays at Harlem’s now-closed St. Nick’s Pub, he took a major leap forward as a jazz figure. Since then the California native has earned two Grammy wins and a worldwide audience.
Critics and vocal fans have embraced Porter’s brand of jazz, soul, and gospel, expertly blended together and wrapped in a warm baritone delivery. Across five albums Porter has recorded standards, contemporary soul, and his own original compositions. His influences include Nat King Cole and Stevie Wonder, among others.
Born in Los Angeles in 1971, Porter grew up in Bakersfield, California. His mother, a minister, introduced him to Cole’s music, and the young Porter was soon imitating his idol.
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 musician/producer/educator Kamau 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 (he’d gone there on a full athletic scholarship based on his football prowess but suffered a career-ending shoulder injury in junior year), Lewis invited him to attend one of his UCSD classes. When Porter arrived, Lewis wasn’t there; Kenyatta was teaching. Porter was the only singer in the class, but he held his own by vocalizing over Miles Davis’ “So What.” After class, Kenyatta pulled Porter to the side and recommended that they work together on music. They have been close collaborators ever since.
It was through Kenyatta that Porter landed his recording debut with flutist Hubert Laws. Kenyatta was working on the flutist’s 1998 disc Hubert Laws Remembers the Unforgettable Nat King Cole 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 Nothin’ But the Blues, and they urged Porter to audition, even though he had only been in one other musical, Avenue X. He passed the audition, and when the show made its Broadway debut in 1999, he was in the cast, garnering rave reviews.
Porter moved to Brooklyn in 2004, working as both a chef and a singer. The residency at St. Nick’s eventually led to his assembling his own touring band and signing a recording contract with Motéma Records. He picked up a Grammy nomination for his 2010 debut, Water. For his third album, Liquid Spirit, he moved to Blue Note Records; the album rose to No. 2 on the Billboard jazz chart and won the Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album in 2013.
In 2017, Porter returned to his roots with a tribute album, Nat King Cole & Me. His latest album, One Night Only: Live at the Royal Albert Hall, was released in 2018.
More recently, Porter has announced the creation of his own podcast, The Hang. Launched in August 2019, it features his conversations on a wide range of topics with close friends and colleagues, including Jeff Goldblum, Annie Lennox, and many others.