Gregory Porter and the gospel truth
PUBLISHED: 10:37 28 April 2014 | UPDATED: 10:39 28 April 2014
Gregory Porter, nominated for two Grammy Awards, is one of the most exciting voices on the jazz scene. After getting into a jam, Katie Jarvis (finally) caught up with him
It goes like this. After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, I get an email asking if I’d like to interview Gregory Porter. Today. In Birmingham.
Um, yes. Yes, please! But blimey. So I hare off down the motorway (lorry has shed its load; my satnav turns its nose up at the postcode of the hotel where we’re meeting; and every carriageway repair that ever needed doing is scheduled for right now, right this second). When I finally get to the city, the roads are jazz-jammed up – I’ve 10 minutes to my gig - so I extemporise by abandoning the car and sprinting.
And then the beneficent gods of jazz swing into action. Two girls in the car park point me in the right direction. A ticket inspector overhears me asking for directions, stops one of his buses, puts me on (for free) and asks the driver to drop me off close by. And when I alight, a Big Issue seller shows me right to the door.
Birmingham is full of lovely people. And that’s kind of fitting when you consider I’m meeting one of the nicest men in jazz. Gregory Porter. He of the rich, soulful voice that resounds with lyricism straight from the heart. He’s instantly recognisable as he strolls across the hotel lobby – physique of an American footballer, grace of a poet; plus, of course, a hallmark hat. I’ve seen it on numerous videos – Hey Laura (Hey Laura it’s me sorry but I had to ring your doorbell so late. But there’s something bothering me all night long but I just couldn’t wait); Be Good (Be good , it’s her name, so I sing my lion’s song and brush my mane); Liquid Spirit (Un-reroute the rivers, let the dammed water be). (Underneath the Liquid Spirit video on the Cheltenham Jazz website, someone has written, “Who knew! I like jazz.”)
We sit in a bar, across the street from the Town Hall where he’s playing tonight, and he orders a whisky: “It’s grown-up time already, isn’t it?” (Well, yes, in some part of the world where you’ve played, but who’s clock-watching).
It’s nice to be here with him at last; it could all have gone so horribly wrong. Not just my trip, I mean. The whole darn caboodle. Because here’s a man for whom – technically speaking – so much did go wrong. Yet he turned it to the good. Brought up by a single mother, a church minister who exposed him to gospel music from his cradle; never really saw his absentee father; potential career as a football star destroyed by a shoulder injury. Plenty of room for going off the rails.
“Yeah, and for a moment I did,” he says. “Not rebelled… but I wasn’t very proud of the gospel roots, in a way. I was thinking of something slicker.
“Until slowly, I started to realise the value of that music and that style, really for music all over the world. And I’ve come to understand it’s the roots of rock and roll; a whole bunch of different music.”
Quite. But let’s come to all that in a moment. I want to talk about Cheltenham Jazz first. He’s become an old friend of the festival in a fairly short time. And it’s a strange friendship, in a way: the conservative-looking, deeply English town, sitting down for a metaphorical G&T with the minister’s boy from central California.
“Oh, I like it,” he says. “Just a beautiful part of the country, the Cotswolds. And they [Cheltenham Festivals] do a good job of creating, like, a musical village. It seems like the neighbourhood takes an interest in the festival as well and it’s really cool.”
This year, he’s going for it, with three different gigs, (“They do a good job at keeping you working!” he jokes) with a session with Ambrose Akinmusire – one of the most talented trumpeters of his generation; an evening celebrating 75 years of Blue Note Records, with a range of special guests; and what promises to be an exuberant gig with his touring pal Jools Holland and His Rhythm & Blues Orchestra.
He especially loves playing England, he says, because the audiences always surprise him. “Yeah - here’s something interesting about the UK audience: they like a little soul in their jazz,” he laughs. “I’m almost shocked. I’ll see somebody dressed in chic, a wool coat, a yellow vest; and I’ll think, ‘Surely they want to hear some straightforward stuff!’ But no – they want to hear Otis Redding mixed in with a little Coltrane. You know what I mean? That’s what I get from the UK – they like soul mixed in with their jazz.”
Besides which, Cheltenham is very much to his way of thinking: bringing jazz to new listeners, creating new fans.
“I don’t mind an audience that doesn’t know me. That’s the fun part, convincing… not even the convincing but just trying to communicate with people – sometimes musical, sometimes not. I’ve been doing that most of my career, in a way. I remember I used to perform at a little restaurant in New York; people would sit down and order their food and thought that was the highlight of their evening. And then I started to sing and I added something to their night. So, yeah, I like the unknown crowd.”
And what about that comment on the festival website? Does it give him pleasure to bring jazz to unbelievers?
“I get that all the time; and I’m not deviating from the roots of jazz. Liquid Spirit [his latest album and his Blue Note Records debut] is very much in the jazz tradition, whether the soul-jazz tradition or the gospel-jazz tradition. I’m just giving them something they thought they didn’t like. That’s even what the song is about – Un-reroute the rivers, let the dammed water be; there’s some people down the way that’s thirsty.
“They’re thirsty; they don’t even know what they’re thirsty for.”
And Gregory Porter knows what it is to be thirsty. His history is a particularly interesting one. He was brought up by a strong mother, whom he speaks of with warmth and love. She was clearly a personality, not just as a parent but in her church ministry. There are stories of her giving away a cheque with her dying breath to a family that couldn’t afford the rent.
His father, on the other hand, left the family home and was rarely seen by them again – and that’s where the thirst comes in.
“It sounds like a good story but, when I was five or six, I actually did used to imagine Nat King Cole as my father.”
That rather tugs at the heartstrings…
“Yeah, it does. I remember doing an interview like this, and the interviewer said that sounds like bullshit. But, no - you think about kids: when they don’t have somebody, what do they do? They turn to music stars, sports stars. My mother said to me, ‘You sound like Nat King Cole,’ when I messed around with this little song on a tape recorder. And that was like a hook and so I started to dig into his music.”
You might think a little lad who grew up having to invent a father could end up bitter. Not Gregory Porter - which speaks volumes about him.
“I came to the point of realising that my singing voice and stage charisma, and even the way I like to play with words – maybe the poetry – comes from some gift of DNA from my father. So [even with] his lack of being there and his lack of interest in my life, in a way I have to thank him for giving me something and making a way for me. I’m not saying I haven’t cultivated or worked to find a way; but he’s given me some gifts, for sure.”
That’s a generous way of looking at life.
“In a way, I realise it’s a self-protection mechanism as well, because I was hurting for a long time. And then, when I was about 28 or 30, I wrote this musical, Nat King Cole & Me, which wasn’t about Nat King Cole; it was about my childhood and the absence of my father.”
Perhaps that forgiveness can be traced back to the woman who brought him up so well. Not only did she instil him with the values that remain to this day; she also gave him permission to do what he now does so brilliantly – risky though a musical career might be. And it happened when she lay dying of breast cancer.
“I think about it now and I kind of laugh in a way because here I am trying to assure her, as she’s expiring, that I will be stable: steady brown shoes and a good normal life. I didn’t want to tell her: ‘Mum, I know you won’t be with us but I’m going out there to do some risky stuff. I might not have a job for a long time; it might be years of hard, trying to figure out who I am and what my voice is’.
“But she said to me, ‘Take the risky route! Don’t forget about music. You have a gift and it’s one of the best things you do. So try it.’”
There must be a part of him that’s sad his parents didn’t live to see his success?
“I have a spiritual thought about that. She comes up all the time in my writing. Whether it’s overt or not... She comes up in my writing a lot.”
He also has his mother to thank for introducing him to music in the first place – in the gospel choirs that filled the churches where she preached. He grew up in California but, he says, as far as the music was concerned, it might as well have been the Deep South. That early introduction to music stood him in good stead when his first choice of career – he won a scholarship as a talented footballer – was cut short by a devastating shoulder injury. It was during that period, when he felt so lost, that he started going to the jam sessions where his outstanding singing voice and song-writing abilities would be discovered.
Yep – mums know best. And things work out in the end, if you just have faith.
If you want a fuller version of that story, then listen to his music. Because that’s where it all plays out. In an incredibly open and honest way.
“You know, it’s funny,” he says. “The way my music is is kind of how I’ve been – I’ve always been open with my friends and they’ve always come to me with problems. Believe it or not, I’m a shy person. But working this stuff out on stage feels natural; it doesn’t seem like I’m just throwing all my business in the streets, even though the emotions I exhibit in Wolfcry or Illusion or Be Good are very personal.”
This is a man whose life is to be found in his work.
“Yeah,” he says. “I think I find myself in the music all the time. I have an appreciation for elders; I have a care and a thought for people who are on the underneath and made to feel like less than. So,” he agrees, “yeah - I think my politics and my personal views are right there, in the music.”
For the full line-up at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, and to book tickets, call 0844 880 8094 or visit www.cheltenhamfestivals.com/jazz
Gregory Porter is at www.gregoryporter.com
This article by Katie Jarvis is from the May 2014 issue of Cotswold Life.
For more from Katie, follower her on twitter: @katiejarvis