By Devon Wendell
On Saturday, June 15, Gregory Porter will be headlining the 35th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival at The Hollywood Bowl. The trailblazing jazz vocalist and songwriter has become one of the most important male jazz singers to come along in decades since the release of his debut album Water (Motema) in 2010, which was nominated for best jazz vocal album at the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards. His sophomore album Be Good (Motema) (released in 2012) earned him a Grammy nomination for best traditional R&B performance last year.
We recently discussed Porter’s rapidly growing career.
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Devon Wendell: Tell me how it feels to be headlining the 35th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival this year?
Gregory Porter: Very exciting, I’m honored. I went to see Joao Gilberto at The Hollywood Bowl many years ago and I thought, “Wow, this place is big with such a grand stage!” I remember wondering if I’d ever make it to a place like this one day. And now I’m going to be there at the Playboy Festival!
DW: That’s really something. And in addition to that, you were recently signed to Blue Note Records, one of the great historical jazz labels. How does that feel?
GP: Pretty amazing. I got more congratulations from my friends on Facebook than I did for my Grammy nominations. (laughter) The importance of that record label to black American music history is incredible. The documentation, style, and record cover design. And the most encouraging thing about Blue Note is that they told me to stay doing what I’m doing.
DW: Let me congratulate you as well.
GP: Thank you.
DW: Who are some of the jazz musicians who inspired you when you were growing up and what was your first introduction to the world of jazz?
GP: Well the first artist who spoke to me in an emotional way was Nat “King” Cole. The music was extraordinary and my mother used to say “Boy you sound like Nat ‘King’ Cole!” (Laughter) Plus Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald’s recording together, Joe Williams, Leon Thomas, Andy Bey, Carmen McRae. But I’ve been inspired by so many artists, jazz and not: Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye, Roberta Flack, The Beatles and Stevie Wonder, A lot of soul and gospel because that’s what was around a lot when I was a kid in both L.A. and Bakersfield and my mother was a minister. The preachers I grew up around really impacted me. Minister Ted Johnson sounded like Leadbelly and Pastor Richardson sang like Sam Cooke. Elder Duffy had an almost James Brown style (Laughter) Growing up in Bakersfield, Black people moved there from The South because of the agriculture, working in the fields and so on. That generation had songs that they brought with them so when we convened in church, we sang this old music, country, gospel, blues. It was not sophisticated, not new, not mass choir, just hands clapping and (Singing) Bless that wonderful name of Jesus. The gospel blues.
DW: Did you appreciate what it was all about then?
GP: No. I didn’t appreciate that sound at the time because I thought, “Oh, I’m around these old people singing these old songs,” and “It’s hot in church, I’d rather be out playing with my friends.” But at the same time, it’s the basis of where I come from when I go to that spiritual place in things like “Work Song,” and “1960 What?” I blur the lines between gospel, soul, and jazz. It’s all given me license to have a more soulful expression in jazz.
DW: You’re such a powerful and imagistic songwriter. Tell me about your songwriting process. Let me ask you the old question: Do you come up with the lyrics or melody first?
GP: The melody and the lyrics come together and the bass line and rhythm follow shortly. It may sound strange but maybe they’re working themselves out in my subconscious mind before they come to my full attention. When I wrote “Be Good,” (Singing) She said lions are made for cages to look at in delight. That just came to me just like I’m singing to you. I don’t spend a lot of time reworking something I’ve written initially based on something I felt. Sometimes it just comes to me and feels right.
DW: Musically and philosophically speaking, tell me about the differences between your debut album Water and the latest album, Be Good.
GP: I think they’re extensions of each other. Be Good is as much about love, protest and songs about culture and family as Water is with its mentioning of Harlem and “Real Good Hands.” There’s more family and love stories in Be Good. If I look at both as self analysis, the themes reappear, the vulnerability. The man that’s singing “Illusions” is also the person who is singing “Hey Laura.” But the protest in Be Good is more subtle. It’s a conversation that comes out of neighborhoods that feel squeezed by gentrification, the people that were there unable to afford the rent now because it’s the new hot property. Love is really what I’m trying to get across in the music in all of its forms. I’m trying to talk about the full spectrum of the human experience.
DW: You grew up in California but currently live in Brooklyn. How has the energy in New York influenced your songwriting in comparison to California?
GP: In New York, the streets outside of the people’s homes are extensions of their living rooms. If I walk to my coffee shop, I’m saying “Hi” to 20 people who feel like they have some ownership in the neighborhood. The thought of family and neighborhood comes together between my house, the coffee shop, and the few blocks near where I live in New York. Watching people’s lives and their ups and downs has had a profound affect on my writing. On the other hand, California’s great, the air’s fresh and sweet, there’s space between houses. But there’s something about hearing somebody next door arguing about a check that bounced. (Laughter)
DW: Which compositions of yours best reflect your own life experiences and personality?
GP: There’s a song on the upcoming album called “When Love Was King.” Some of the lyrics are: “When love was king, he lifted up the underneath and all is well he did bequeath. To all those who toil without a gain so they would remember his reign. The hungry children first he think to pull their lives from the brink. Beside him stood his mighty queen of equal force, wise and keen.” In these themes, I mention feeding hungry children, gender equality, and eradicating poverty. The idea is not to write a political song to beat people over the head with, it’s to lay it down for them to agree with or not. There’s one song on my upcoming album that I don’t agree with. But I’m singing it. “Water” is one that reflects me, the redeeming and regenerating qualities of it fascinate me. That theme comes up on all of my albums.
DW: Songs of yours, such as “1960 What?” and “On My Way To Harlem,” paint a clear and educational picture of African American history, culture and experience. Was it your intention, when you were writing the songs, to educate listeners of other cultures?
GP: Yes, If it’s a curiosity that wells up in me, then I assume that someone else may want to feel that energy too. The whole world has been supplied by the art, writing, and political thought that’s come out of Harlem, so I felt a connection and ownership to it even when I was a little boy. Like films on The West Coast, or the great songwriting that comes out of Memphis or Nashville, Harlem is a special place. If we don’t preserve and protect the things that create energy, the world will be worse for it.
DW: Lyrically, you’re also one of the best storytellers to come along in music in a long time. Tell me about some lyricists and writers in general who have impacted you as a songwriter.
GP: I realized when I started to write that the more personally you write, the more universal it can be. We all have those direct stories that make us human, then more humans get it. (Laughter) I was thinking of an album Jobim recorded where he’s singing with his grandchildren and he’s singing in the words that his grandchildren would sing. I read the beautiful lyrics of Milton Nascimento. And as far as the American book of standards is concerned, it’s just genius after genius.
DW: You’re labeled as being a “jazz vocalist.” Are you content with that label or do you find it limits your ability to reach a broader audience?
GP: No. I’m a jazz singer for sure. I even felt like that when I was primarily singing gospel. I would always deviate from the melodies and look for other harmonies to play around with while I’m singing songs that had been in the canon of gospel music for a hundred years. So I’m a jazz singer formed by gospel, blues, soul music, and anything else I want to add. That’s truly the tradition of the music.
DW: Can you mention some examples?
GP: Sure. The purest of jazz vocals for me: Abbey Lincoln, Carmen McRae, Nina Simone, all extended the bounds to include other genres of music. And it’s not a slight to say that my style has also been influenced by classic ‘70s R&B. If you hear a piece of Donny Hathaway in me, good, God almighty!
DW: Sounds great. Thank you so much Gregory, for your time and wisdom. I’ll see you at The Bowl.
GP: Thank you, looking forward to it.
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