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Remembering Bob Porter (1940–2021)

The jazz producer and historian was also—for 40 years—the host of Portraits in Blue on Newark radio station WBGO

Bob Porter
Bob Porter

Bob Porter, a Grammy Award-winning record producer, radio broadcaster, writer, and historian of jazz and blues, died April 10 at his home in Northvale, N.J. He was 80.

His death was first reported by Newark radio station WBGO, where he had been a longtime staff announcing talent. Cause of death was esophageal cancer.

Although Porter began his jazz career as a producer and liner-note writer at Prestige Records (helming the recordings of sessions by Houston Person, Sonny Stitt, and Gene Ammons), he did his most significant work as a producer of historical reissues of jazz, blues, and R&B albums for the Savoy and Atlantic record labels as well as Prestige. As such, Porter was responsible for the digital-era renaissance of hundreds of recordings, among them Thelonious Monk’s, Miles Davis’, and John Coltrane’s Prestige sessions; the Modern Jazz Quartet’s Atlantic albums; Duke Ellington’s Great Paris Concert; and the multivolume compilation Atlantic Rhythm & Blues (1947-1974), for which he won a Grammy in 1986.

A renowned expert on the history of the genres in which he worked, Porter handled discographer duties for Prestige, Savoy, and Verve Records. And he channeled his expertise into broadcasting: He was a founding announcer on WBGO, beginning there in 1979 and debuting his long-running blues program Portraits in Blue in 1981. (The program continued until his death.) He was also the author of the 2016 book Soul Jazz: Jazz in the Black Community, 1945-1975, a history of jazz as told through its position within Black America.

“Most jazz histories that I’ve read have been written by white people,” Porter explained in a 2017 WBGO interview, adding that historically, in jazz, white people were “the fringe audience.” African-American audiences, he said, “approached things differently.”

Robert Sherwin Porter was born June 20, 1940 in Wellesley, Mass., the son of David Porter, an investment management executive, and the former Constance Kavanaugh. He graduated from Wellesley High School in 1958 and attended college at Whittier College in California until he was drafted into the Army. After serving in Fairbanks, Alaska, Porter returned to Whittier to complete a bachelor’s degree in English.

Porter began writing about jazz while at Whittier; Bob Weinstock hired him on the basis of his published work as a house writer of liner notes at Prestige Records. In 1968, he began producing albums on the label, beginning with organist Charles Kynard’s Professor Soul. His productions were primarily in the soul-jazz and jazz-funk veins that were jazz’s most commercially successful styles in the period of 1968-75.

In 1975, Porter moved to Savoy Records, where he began producing reissues of the label’s storied back catalogue. Among his projects were the 1979 collection The Complete Charlie Parker on Savoy; he won his first Grammy for the album’s liner notes. He continued at Savoy until 1980. In 1986 he went to Atlantic Records as a reissue producer, where he created the Atlantic Rhythm & Blues collection that won him his second Grammy.

Porter also continued working as a writer. He was a contributor to JazzTimes, among many other publications, and contributed chapters to The Oxford University Press Companion to Jazz and The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz and Blues.

Porter served nine times as governor of the New York chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, as well as serving seven terms on the Board of Directors for the Blues Foundation. He received the Nick Bishop Award for Outstanding Service from the New Jersey Jazz Society in 1992; the Blues Heaven Award from Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation in 1994; and the Community Service Award from the Bergen County (New Jersey) Chapter of the NAACP in 2003.

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He is survived by his second wife, the former Linda Calandra; his son from his first marriage (to Cheryl Dankert), David Porter; his brothers, William and John Porter; his sister, Linda Owens; two stepsons, Michael and Rick Tombari; and three grandchildren.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.