With signature Kangol with ear flaps pulled over his head—looking more the vagabond than the genius—Gregory Porter would have cut a figure in any era; but it is his voice—as original as they come—that surely arrests everyone’s attention. Gregory Porter is among a generation of Black male jazz singers, including Jose James and Dwight Trible, who have made the choice against all logics to close ranks around a tradition that is so far removed from the Hip-Hop generation that there’s not a rearview mirror to consult. Whereas both James, who covered Freestyle Fellowship’s “Park Bench People” on his debut Dreamer, and Trible have managed to dance on the fringes of hip-hop style production, Porter, save a few remixes, keeps it straight. As John Murph writes in a recent profile of Porter in Jazz Times, “There’s a very popular and profitable space where the theater intersects with true-blue jazz singing, but Gregory Porter ops for the latter. He’s the real deal.”
Figures like Billy Eckstine, Nat King Cole, Jon Hendricks, Johnny Hartman, Arthur Prysock, Jimmy Scott, Joe Williams, Andy Bey, Ernie Andrews and Leon Thomas, among others, contributed to a rich tradition of jazz singing from the late 1940s until the early 1970s. There’s no disputing that with emergence of Soul music in the late 1950s, jazz singing became after-thought for many young Black vocalists. Though Marvin Gaye really aspired for a career more in line with Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole (who he was long rumored to portray in a film and for whom he recorded an album length tribute after Cole’s death), such a career was untenable for his record label.
The career arcs the of Jon Lucien and Gil Scott-Heron in the 1970s are also instructive—neither would dare simply refer to themselves as jazz singers, though both were clearly indebted to that tradition. When Bobby McFerrin released his eponymous debut in 1982, covering Smokey Robinson, Van Morrison, Wayne Shorter, and quickly shifted to Jazz’s version of Biz Markie—his great gift to the tradition being “Don’t Worry Be Happy” (Chuck D: “…was a number one jam, damn if I say it, you can smack me right here”—it was clear that jazz singing was largely a dead form to young Black male singers; Will Downing was going to be an R&B singer or worse, a Smooth Jazz vocalist. Anyone remember Kevin Mahogany?
Born and raised in Bakersfield, CA, Porter and his seven siblings were reared by their mother, who was a former COGIC evangelist. It was Porter’s mother Ruth who encouraged him to pursue singing as an art, though he also entertained a career as an athlete, playing linebacker at San Diego State, before an injury ended his career. As he told Murph recently, his mother “creeps up in a lot of places in my art, whether I want her here or not.” The reverence that Porter holds for his mother, and women in general, shows up in subtle and not so subtle way in his music. The more obvious reference is the track “Mother’s Song,” from Porter’s new release Be Good. Less obvious are Porter’s covers of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” (from 2010’s Water) and Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child,” (from Be Good) both of which he does as unadorned a cappella performances.
Porter’s stellar debut, Water (2010), earned him a Grammy nomination, though it made him no more visible to Black music audiences and radio programmers. Like so many American jazz artists, Porter has had to cultivate his audiences abroad, giving even more credence to that vagabond look he has crafted for himself: have song, will travel. Porter is appreciative of his European and Asian audiences, telling Murph, “I’m not going over there aping some fake shit; they sense the authenticity…they tell you who you are in a way. The shame is that not enough American audiences—Black audiences—even know who Porter is, let alone, have heard Water.
While Porter’s covers of “Skylark” and “But Beautiful” are simply breathtaking, charting the same classic territory Jose James visited on For All We Know, released the same year as Water, it is Porter’s originals that truly standout. Tracks like “Illusion” and the title track “Water” recall the sparse ballads of Bill Withers during his +’Justments (1974) and Making Music (1975) period. Yet, Porter is not afraid to come hard, as he does on the insurgent “1960 What?” which speaks back to a broad tradition within Black music of naming evil in the world.
In the midst of the racist and systematic violence of so-called post-Race America, Porter defiantly sing “Young man coming out of a liquor store • With three pieces of black licorice in his hand y’all • Mister police man thought it was a gun • Though he was the one • Shot him down y’all • That ain’t right, ” the title of the song a reminder that what was once, is still. The power of the song has been captured in the remixes of the song, like Peter “Opolopo” Major’s “Kick & Bass Rurub” of the track. As Porter told writer Siddhartha Miller in Water’s liner notes, “It’s an album of love and protest.”
The Gregory Porter that appears on Be Good, released in February on the indie, Harlem based Motéma Music label, is one who is more polished. Besides his rousing cover of Nat Adderley’s “Work Song,” there are several signature ballads, including the lead single “Be Good (Lion’s Song).” The song perfectly captures the sense of whimsy that pervades Porter’s music—a quality that filmmaker Pierre Bennu placed front and center in his video treatment of the song, which conjures the “color” scenes from Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It (1986). “Real Good Hands” (with nods the Duke Ellington’s “Heritage”) is another standout, as the groom-to-be engages the quaint tradition of asking his bride-to-be’s parents for permission to marry their daughter. Porter’s constant refrain of “I’m a real good man,” speaks volumes about his own negotiations within a marketplace has long forgot the value of regular folk. Even with that headgear, Porter’s is just a hardworking, regular dude, trying to do the right thing.
The centerpiece of Be Good is the rollicking tribute to Harlem on the track “On My Way to Harlem.” Packed with a celebratory nostalgia (“you can’t keep me away from where I was born • I was baptized by my daddy’s horn”), a sense of loss (“I found out through my way to Harlem • Ellington he don’t live ‘round here, he moved away, so they say”) and hope (I sure could use • some of those Blues • from Langston Hughes”), the song is a tour de force—one that Misters Baisden and Joyner, would do well to introduce their audiences to. I’m sure Frankie Crocker would have loved it.
Porter’s emergence points to the troubling dynamic of contemporary Black art: as musical artists like Porter, THEESatisfaction, Santigold and The Robert Glaspar Experiment represent a relative renaissance in Black music—hand-in-hand with the new media platforms birthed in the broadband era—mainstream media has turned a dead-era and
blind-eye to it. If not for the availability of Porter’s “Be Good (Lion’s Song)” or “Illusion” on sites like Youtube, even fewer folks would know of his art.
Gregory Porter is on his way to Harlem, and we all should take his cue and follow him there.
—Mark Anthony Neal