Jazz singer Gregory Porter is an ex-lineman with a blues-infused soul
The songwriter is using his modern jazz vocals to help keep the art form alive
“I came to writing my own music not because of some love story or from some broken heart,” said jazz singer Gregory Porter. “It was my father. I had a pain in my chest about him not showing enough interest in my life as a child.”
Porter — 6-feet-5 and 255 pounds — earned a San Diego State athletic scholarship in football as a lineman. But shortly after his January 1990 enrollment, he suffered a career-ending rotator cuff injury. After moving from Bakersfield, California, to the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, New York, to work as a chef at his brother’s restaurant, he began to moonlight as a crooner in the clubs, cafes and restaurants of Brooklyn and Harlem, New York. “So when I started to exorcise this pain in my heart … it came out as melody and lyric about him, and our relationship.” Four albums and two Grammys later, his velvety voice remains a funky fusion of jazz, blues, soul and gospel.
From those tiny club stages, Porter began a journey to become a male African-American jazz singer — whom BBC calls a “worryingly rare breed.” Porter signed with the Motema label and released Water in 2010. Porter’s baritone voice and mindful songwriting have placed him in the highest of ranks. He was awarded his first Grammy for 2012’s Liquid Spirit, and earned his latest Grammy for his 2016 Take Me To The Alley in the best jazz vocal album category. His voice has the rasp of Sam Cooke, but also the liquid butter sound of his favorite artist Nat “King” Cole. This is mixed with the soulful lyrics that greet you with a dose of realism and the careful arrangements of Donny Hathaway.
Porter, along with his seven siblings, was raised by his minister mother, Ruth, while his father, Rufus, a Memphis, Tennessee, native, was not there for them. Raising her children in the church and instilling in them those Christian and gospel roots, Porter’s mother remains an inspirational source in his life. She died of cancer when Porter was just 21.
“I remember standing in my apartment in San Diego, boo-hooing,” he said in 2016. “But it turned out great. I think my mother saw the positive side of my injury before I did … [she] said, ‘Now you have more flexibility to explore music, focus on your studies, and see what happens’ … I think I ended up in the right place.”
How old were when you began singing?
I was 5. There were eight kids — we were basically a choir. So there was a lot of music in the house. It always just felt like the right thing, my thing. Also, you find a way to stick out with eight kids and it was just my thing.
How did you develop your sound?
That gospel migration that came from the South. My mother was from Shreveport, Louisiana, and my father from Memphis, Tennessee. Some of those roots came to central California that I was exposed to in church. Very old roots. I was singing with a lot of older singers, 80-year-old singers, when I was a little kid. So I was probably getting something from … music from the turn of the century or the ’20s, stylistically. So, yeah. I picked up a lot from them. When it came time to do my jazz, the one thing that set me apart was I had this country, gospel, blues background. At the moment I started to utilize that in my singing was when success started to happen. It was a different sound. A more grounded, rooted sound that I was bringing into my jazz.
How did you get into in the storytelling aspect of your songwriting?
I wanted to make music that struck me the way listening to Nat Cole’s music or Sammy Davis Jr.’s music struck me. The story is most important. I realized that when writing from a personal experience, writing about grounded soulful things, I was most effective at communicating in song. I started dealing with my relationships, I started dealing with what I feel about love, and the country and … things I feel about … race, mutual respect and justice. All these things come out in my writing.
How does your music relate to your spirituality?
I’m not trying to beat anybody over the head with spirituality … I’m trying to stretch out and touch … everybody … But my spirituality, it can’t help but find its way into the music. That’s the way that it is.
Where is your favorite place to write your music?
Planes, trains. In cars. When I’m in motion. Something about moving past people, buildings and environments, it sparks some desire for me to write. It causes me to consider where I’ve been, and in a way, where I’m going.
Do you write on your laptop, iPad — or old-school pen and paper?
All of those. I’ve even had somebody turn their camera on and just tape me for 15 seconds, and then have them send it to my email. I don’t want to miss … you know what I mean? “Our Love,” I wrote while walking around the Tower of London. “Be Good,” I wrote on my bike on my way home from getting dinner. That’s the way I write — I don’t write. I don’t sit down at a table and say, ‘OK, now it’s time to write a song.’ I can’t do it like that. However I capture it is how it happens. It has to get captured.
What’s been the hardest part of your journey?
It’s all a blessing … to be able to have this career. The difficulty is in the consequence of love. I begin to hate time and distance because it keeps me away from my loved ones, my family, my favorite coffee shop, my son, my dear friends. If you commit to doing 300 days on the road, then somebody’s going to suffer in terms of your friendships. I think the disconnection that I may have with my closest friends is the toughest thing. It’s like constant small heartaches — engaging people and then releasing them.
Where were you when you learned of your most recent Grammy nomination?
For some reason, they come out late at night on the East Coast. I always just remember being woken up in New York. Somebody jumping on my head and saying, ‘You got nominated!’ But this time, I was just cooking in the kitchen. I wasn’t aware of when the nominations were being announced and my wife is pretty good, she’s like, ‘Yeah, hey, you.’ She came into the kitchen and told me. I was like, ‘All right. That’s great. I’ll take that.’
You recently did a collaboration with Kem on “Holding On.” How was that experience for you?
Great. I was a fan, and he’s an artist with a unique musical character, and so, it was a really good fit. He has a strong point of view, and when he co-produced “Holding On,” it was me, but it was with the essence of Kem. It’s still doing very well.
What’s been the most simple part of your journey?
The simplest, or the most beautifulest, is really just engaging different cultures all over the world. Whether it’s Australia, Mexico, Indonesia … when I get there, people know my name, shake my hand, and welcome me. It’s based on not some status, or some shiny suit I’m wearing. It’s based on some words I said that opened their heart. So, that’s really cool, and that makes me feel probably most proud of the music. I go so many places around the world, and it’s like there’s somebody there that knows me for some positive reason. They scream out of a car, ‘Gregory, I love you!’ That’s not negative. That feels good. I ain’t lie about that.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.