Interview: Jazz Singer Gregory Porter

We talked to the musician about the power of jazz, racism in the US and his trademark flat cap.

Suddenly there he is – no hype, no entourage, just that smile. He’s visibly embarrassed about arriving 15 minutes late, the norm in the permanently gridlocked New York traffic. Gregory Porter oozes pedigree, style and a pleasantly easy manner. First, he marvels at the panoramic view of the Manhattan skyline from the famous Rainbow Room on the 65th floor of the Rockefeller Center, adjusts the salmon-pink breast-pocket handkerchief in his snazzy three-piece suit, then lets the photographer take charge. The broad-shouldered jazz singer’s voice and posture make it quite clear he is not a man to be rushed. The former football player seems to fill the room. His trademark black cap, on the other hand, diminishes his presence somewhat, concealing as it does a large portion of his face. This man has taken the world of music by storm and made jazz cool again. The 45-year-old, who now lives in his native California again with his wife and son after their spell in New York, seems to find it hard to comprehend his rapid rise to fame. His last album earned him a Grammy, while his latest release, Take Me to the Alley, looks set to continue in the same vein.

Gregory Porter, Rainbow Room, Rockefeller Center

Rainbow Room, Rockefeller Center

Mr. Porter, where exactly is the alley you take us to on your current album?
In Bakersfield, California, where I grew up and where my mother worked as a preacher. I learned a great deal about life on that street.

In what way?
My mother often went round the local neighbourhood helping others. Man, it really wasn’t a good part of town. I’ve sung on the street for drug addicts and [sex workers]. That taught me compassion. And gratitude.

Did you have dreams of becoming a musician even back then?
I knew that I liked singing, that I loved music and that there was always something playing in my head. At church, everyone enjoyed listening to me sing. But make a career of it? There was no time for such pipe dreams.

So instead you devoted yourself to sport.
Which was no easy option either. Just one percent of US college athletes make it as a professional. For me, it was the chance to get a college education. I had the prospect of a football scholarship and my goal was in sight.

Until you injured your shoulder just before finishing high school, which with hindsight must seem like a stroke of good fortune now.
Something like that. But first, my world came crashing down around me. It was a long time before I found my way back to my first love, music.

Gregory Porter

What was the decisive factor in the end?
My mother. I was in my twenties when she fell seriously ill. We had many conversations before she died. One day she said, “Don’t forget the music.” I had a huge amount of respect for my mother. She brought up eight kids on her own. When she died, I fell into a hole. It was music that got me out again.

You released your debut album at the age of 38 – that’s pretty late to be launching a music career.
When you look at other musicians, yes, it is late. For me, on the other hand, it was a process that took time. As a genre, jazz talks about age and experiences, about highs and lows. You have to have lived life before you can sing about it.

What experiences have marked you?
Above all, the lifelong void my father left behind. I hardly knew him. Our rare encounters did not bring us closer in any way. You would think I’d have put all that behind me now that I’m a grown man, but it’s not that easy. Since I started to write about these and other feelings, my music has been more rounded. Songs like “Hey Laura” or “Be Good” are about things that really happened. I don’t have to make anything up.

That must be a liberating feeling.
Oh yes. You could say that writing songs is my personal therapy – a good thing. Unfortunately, it puts me in the tricky situation of having to perform in public. I’m very shy; it was a nightmare at the start.

Is that why you hide under that huge cap?
Maybe [laughs]. I know everyone’s curious and would like to know what the story behind it is. The simple answer is that it’s just my thing. Many people think I wear the cap to get attention, but I don’t care. No one gave me a record deal just because I wear a modified flat cap.

Even 60 years on from the Civil Rights Movement, jazz continues to be a political and cultural mouthpiece.”

Your very first album was a hit, and it was followed by a Grammy and other awards. You’re seen as the man who has rejuvenated jazz.
Music is constantly evolving, but the genre’s basis always stays the same. Jazz has its roots in gospel, the blues and spirituals. Lyrics and melodies can put a contemporary slant on it, but even 60 years on from the Civil Rights Movement, jazz continues to be a cultural and political mouthpiece. The same issues persist, too, with cases of police violence against blacks in Ferguson and Baltimore – regrettably. We’re essentially still fighting for the same things as back then: equality, respect and freedom. But it isn’t just black people that are faced with this struggle; it also affects women, Muslims, immigrants and gay people. The list is long. Ferguson and Baltimore served as a reminder to the world of the existence of racism in the USA, but it never actually went away.

Have you personally experienced any hostility because of the colour of your skin?
If I have, then it’s been expressed more subtly, for instance through looks. In my childhood and youth, all sorts of things happened, including the burning of crosses and the use of words I would rather not say here. If any good at all has come of these recent events, it’s that they have now brought things out into the open so that we can finally bring about a lasting change. I’m proud to be an American. But we have to talk openly, and that dialogue has to include talking about the past. You can’t simply wipe away or gloss over your own history.

Manhattan, Empire State Building

What role can music play in this sort of debate?
Jazz was and still is the freest of all forms of musical expression. Abbey Lincoln, John Coltrane, Max Roach – for all of them, jazz was a catalyst. Jazz does not isolate itself, either musically or ideologically speaking. The spiritual element in the lyrics seeks to touch people’s hearts, rouse them and call on them to protest.

On your current album, you do precisely that with “Fan the Flames.”
That’s right, “Stand up in your seat with your dirty feet” is a call to think and act. You have a right to protest. Your feet are dirty because you have walked through the filth and bullshit that politicians have left in their wake. But later in the song, it says: “Raise your fist in the air. Protest. But be sweet!” Non-violent resistance is imperative for peace. What I want to see is fair protest and mutual respect.

Is giving people a wake-up call the main aim of your music?
That’s one of my aims. There are many reasons why I make music: some emotional, some political. And I want to entertain people and get them into jazz. It’s no secret that the genre has lost fans over the years. I want to change that. When I’m writing my songs, I often think of the 20-year-old who believes jazz has nothing to say to him because it’s a musical style for older people. Or the 35-year-old who’s listened to hip hop for most of his life and fails to see a link between the genres.

If I can make jazz more accessible with the help of pop or hip hop, then so much the better!”

Is that why your more recent albums have been increasingly mainstream in nature?
I see everything I do as being jazz first and foremost. But my music is flexible and its boundaries are expandable. I don’t want it to be static and stuck in one genre. It has to live. If collaborations with other musicians produce a new sound with mainstream appeal, I can’t see anything wrong with that. Hip hop, soul, classic or pop crossovers are a musical enhancement. I know, some critics dismiss that as sucking up or selling out. But I believe in jazz – I love it. And I want people to realize what this music has to offer. If I can make it more accessible to them with the help of pop or hip hop, then so much the better!

By doing so, you’ve really struck a chord, especially in Europe. How do you explain this massive success, while America is only now starting to jump on the Gregory Porter bandwagon?
If only I knew – perhaps because you don’t recognize the importance of something when it’s right under your nose? As we all know, we see things more clearly from a distance. Apart from that, audiences in Europe are more open-minded and curious. In the UK and Germany in particular, people still really love to get into new things. I have never experienced that as intensely anywhere else, and that’s definitely not just down to me and my music. History shows it was the same story with the blues, with rock ’n’ roll and with soul. There’s simply an amazing appetite for music there.

And the US has simply had enough?
In a way, yes. Above all, though, it’s hard to make an impression here in the face of the music industry’s power. I talk about this in songs like “Liquid Spirit”: “Un-re-route the rivers / Let the dammed water be.” You can apply that to music – just let it take its course. Instead of that, the industry decides what’s “in” for us. And if jazz isn’t on the list, it’s not played on the radio either. But I’m not giving up hope. This year I’m touring more in the US and Canada, so something’s happening.

You’re just so calm and laid-back…
If life has taught me anything, it’s that the sledgehammer approach causes nothing but pain. I prefer to proceed with caution. And if an opportunity arises, I seize it.

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