Gregory Porter is an up-and-coming jazz soul singer who is turning heads with his debut CD, “Water.”
Wynton Marsalis has gone on record to call him “a fantastic young singer,” and his music reflects the seasoned talents of the giants of blues, gospel and soul that have influenced him throughout his career.
Some of the singers that Porter cites as influential are familiar – Nat King Cole, Joe Williams and Donny Hathaway – and others – such as the pastor of the church he attended as a child among them – may never realize their impact on his development as an artist.
Porter’s career trajectory can be traced back to Porter’s early days singing in small jazz clubs in San Diego.
He lived there while at San Diego State University which he attended on a football scholarship, as an outside linebacker, until a shoulder injury sidelined him permanently.
Recognizing his talents, Kamau Kenyatta – along with saxophonist Daniel Jackson (Ray Charles, Buddy Rich, Art Farmer and more) – nurtured the burgeoning performer, and, as Porter says, “taught him what he needed to know.”
Kenyatta invited Porter to visit him in the studio in Los Angeles, where he was producing the flutist Hubert Laws’ Remembers the Unforgettable Nat King Cole.
Certainly Kenyatta was aware of Porter’s childhood infatuation with Cole’s music, and certainly he could hear the echoes of Cole’s mellow baritone in Porter’s own voice.
What he could not have predicted was that when Laws heard Porter singing along when he was tracking the Charlie Chaplin-penned “Smile,” the flutist would be so impressed with the young singer that he would choose to include a ‘bonus’ track of Porter singing the song on the album.
Just as serendipitous was Laws’ sister, Eloise’s, presence that day in the studio. A highly respected singer and recording artist in her own right, Eloise was about to join the cast of a new musical theater work, “It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues.”
Although he’d only had minimal theatrical experience to that point (in the Doo Wop musical “Avenue X”), Porter eventually was cast in one of eight lead roles when the play opened in Colorado at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, and eventually followed it to Off-Broadway and then Broadway theater, where the NY Times, in its 1999 rave review, mentioned Porter among the show’s “powerhouse line up of singer.”
“It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues” went on to earn both Tony and Drama Desk Award nominations that year.
Although he now says, “I never felt that my career was going to be strictly in the theater,” Porter’s success on stage with “It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues” paved the way for another theatrical outing and pairing with Eloise Laws.
In his semi-autobiographical “Nat King Cole and Me,” he dramatically documented his childhood, which was marked by an absentee father and the joy and pain he heard when listening to his mother’s Nat King Cole records.
Apparently, one day, when his mother heard her young son singing along, she remarked that he sounded like Cole. This led to a rich imaginary life where the young Porter actually believed that the legendary crooner was indeed his dad, and that the love songs Cole sang were secretly being sung to him.
Porter’s moving “Nat King Cole & Me” ran for two very successful months at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts and has since travelled to Houston without Porter’s involvement.
Born in Los Angeles, raised in Bakersfield, and now living in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, Gregory Porter has made the world his musical home.
A frequent guest performer with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Porter also maintains a long-standing residency at Harlem’s venerable St. Nick’s Pub, and performs internationally.
“I’ve been to Russia about 17 times,” says Porter. “I now can make a mean borscht.”
* Up-and-coming jazz singer admired by Wynton Marsalis
* Got his start singing in San Diego while attending SDSU on a football scholarship.
* Very influenced by Nat King Cole, Joe Williams and Donny Hathaway
Sound Observations With Gregory Porter
By David Moye
When Gregory Porter was a teenager, he had two loves: Singing and playing football, but his dream was to make the NFL.
Porter was good enough to get a scholarship from San Diego State University as a defensive end and was willing to do whatever it took to make his dream come true.
But that old saying about some of the best prayers being the unanswered ones turned out to be true for Porter.
A rotator cuff ended his chances of being a football star, but helped him achieve another dream – as a world class jazz singer.
“If it took a rotator cuff injury to get me into singing, I’m okay with that,” said Porter, who is performing a homecoming gig February 9 at Anthology.
Porter is considered a rising star in jazz, while his former teammate, Aztec great Marshall Faulk, who is younger than him, is retired from football.
“I know he thinks he can sing – but he can’t,” laughed Porter.
Porter attended SDSU between 1990 and 1996 and when his football dreams ended, he found a whole team of sorts from San Diego’s jazz community.
“Daniel Jackson was the guy who really helped me out,” Porter said. “He taught about what is musically going on besides the singing and I used to jam with Gilbert Castellanos wherever he was jamming. Turiya Maria and both Chuck and Charles McPherson were there as well.
“I actually started singing in church. I have a gospel ear and I have adapted my style that is sort of soul jazz, but still straight ahead.”
Porter has just released his debut CD, “Water,” which is nominated for Best Vocal Jazz album and includes a song by Jackson. “He better show up to the gig to hear it,” he laughed.
Unlike some jazz vocalists, who approach song lyrics almost mathematically, Porter believes in telling a story. Luckily, the drama classes he took at SDSU come in handy.
“Jazz is more than lines on dots,” he said. “Your job as a singer is to convey emotion whether it’s caused by a broken heart or a dysfunctional society or even poverty or success. I believe in being heartfelt.”