The life of a jazz musician: Gregory Porter

Closer to Gregory Porter’s heart than his unusual headgear is the inspiration of Nat King Cole
US singer Gregory Porter performs at Nice's Jazz Festival.   Picture: Valery Hache/AFP/GettyUS singer Gregory Porter performs at Nice's Jazz Festival.   Picture: Valery Hache/AFP/Getty
US singer Gregory Porter performs at Nice's Jazz Festival. Picture: Valery Hache/AFP/Getty

It’s not often you put the phone down after talking to someone who is probably enduring 20-odd interviews a day and think, “What a lovely guy,” but then it’s not very often you come across someone as charming and unassuming as Gregory Porter, the soulful 42-year-old jazz singer who is no longer the “next big thing” but the “big thing” itself.

Porter, who performs in Glasgow on Saturday, is currently riding a wave of Grammy and chart success thanks to Liquid Spirit, his debut album on legendary jazz label Blue Note. Porter’s appeal may go well beyond the jazz arena, but his musical roots lie very much in jazz and gospel, the types of music with which he grew up in California.

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The combination of a very present mother and a completely absent father shaped the course of Porter’s journey through music. His mother was a minister who raised eight children in what Porter describes as “a very musical household”. Everyone mucked in with cooking and cleaning, and there was always a soundtrack, whether it was from the radio or from the family singing which, of course, they did in church as well as at home.

For Porter, whose talent was identified early on, singing was a way of getting his mother’s attention. “I was a mama’s boy,” he admits, “and that was a way to get on her side. The two things that I really love to do are cooking and singing – two things my mother really loved. I was number seven of eight kids – so you had to find some way to distinguish yourself in the household.”

It may sound unlikely, but it was in his mother’s record collection that Porter, whose teenage tastes already included Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, found a father figure – in the great singer/pianist Nat King Cole. He explains: “I became obsessed with Nat King Cole. I was using his music and his style, and even the images from his records, to satiate me in some way, in some absence that I had, in terms of a father figure.”

Cole’s rich, chocolatey voice was comforting and he seemed to exude an air of wisdom. As imaginary fathers go, his appeal is pretty obvious: on the television shows that he made in the 1950s (he died in 1965), he came across as an avuncular personality, introducing his songs as if dispensing advice and addressing the audience as if he were talking to close friends and relatives. Porter remembers album covers making a particular impression on him: “A lot of them show him sitting by the fire with a pipe.” He always came across as a family man.

Not only did Cole to some extent plug an emotional gap in the young Porter’s life, but he also proved to be the launchpad for his career. In 1998, Porter had been singing in small jazz clubs in San Diego while attending the state university on a football scholarship when he was invited by local pianist/saxophonist Kamau Kenyatta to visit him in the Los Angeles recording studio where he was producing flautist Hubert Laws’ album, Hubert Laws Remembers The Unforgettable Nat King Cole.

When Laws overheard Porter singing along to the song Smile, he was so impressed that he decided to include him on the album. Another twist of fate that day was a chance encounter with Laws’ sister, a singer who was about to join the cast of a new musical, It Ain’t Nothin’ But The Blues. One thing led to another, and Porter landed one of the leading roles when it opened in Denver. Off-Broadway then Broadway success followed, and in the New York Times’ 1999 rave review, Porter was mentioned as one of the show’s “powerhouse line-up of singers”.

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The Cole connection didn’t end there: in 2004, Porter wrote his own musical – about his relationship with his “father figure”. In Nat King Cole And Me – A Musical Healing, he played a character based on himself, a boy seeking love and guidance and finding it in Cole, who, like him, had “grown up in the church”, with both parents involved in the ministry.

Porter’s love for Cole was ultimately expressed in many ways – and may soon manifest itself in a duet with his surviving daughter, the singer Natalie Cole – but initially, during the early years, it was his own “private” music. “I liked that,” he says. “I still do to this day. I like it when there’s some unique singer that not a whole bunch of people know about – and it’s my personal musical conversation that I’m having with them.”

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So, do any other singers get a look-in as influences? Porter chuckles and replies: “Yeah. For me, very different stylistically, but in the way they both are singing from a very emotional standpoint, I would say Donny Hathaway. Also Bill Withers and Lou Rawls – those styles and types of voices and approach have always been very influential to me.”

Another key influence is the jazz vocalist Abbey Lincoln – but not so much for her singing. “In terms of my writing and even approaching my music, she has been very much an influence. She was very personal with her style and her offerings of music. She would put personal stories, personal cultural stories, into her writing and it’s almost hard to imagine anybody else singing her music. She was willing to put her politics into the music as well; life being politics – she put that into the music, and that was something that affected me and my thinking about music as well.”

All but three of the 14 songs on Liquid Spirit were penned by Porter, who has been praised for the way in which he weaves social and political observations into his songs, and for his ability to translate painful personal experiences into poignant lyrics that are easy to relate to. Doesn’t he ever kick himself and think: “I wish I hadn’t put that song on the album – because now I’ve got to keep singing it?” Isn’t it like reliving the same experience over and over?

He laughs heartily. “Yeah, but I’ll tell you something that’s interesting: I keep being asked ‘who is Laura?’ [from the brink-of-break-up song Hey Laura]. Actually, she was from Edinburgh! I’m speaking to you from Laura’s home in Colorado.” But he doesn’t elaborate.

Of course, the other question that Porter is always being asked is “what’s the story with the hat?” The singer is never seen without his signature bunnet-cum-balaclava. Is it, as one paper reported, the sartorial equivalent of a security blanket – his “jazz blankee”? Does he have a scalp condition? Is it a homage to Thelonious Monk who was seldom seen sans wacky chapeau?

The singer chuckles good-naturedly. “It goes with what I feel about music. I admire people who are their own individuals in the music, who have a distinct and unique sound and approach. That’s what jazz is supposed to be – you’re supposed to be a unique individual in the music.

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“It also applies to your personal charisma and style – and even with your personal dress. As a jazz musician, you’re probably supposed to be a little bit out of the box. And let’s face it, there have already been a whole bunch of great jazz hats – Count Basie’s sailor caps, Lester Young’s pork pie hat etc. This is mine.” n

Gregory Porter plays the ABC, Glasgow, on Saturday