Gregory Porter

After the Show

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Gregory Porter is one of the most successful jazz singers of our time. His path was slow – and quiet. We met up with him in Biarritz.

  • Author: Hanna Gieffers
  • Photos: Gregory Porter/DJ Marketing Communication Ltd.
  • Video: DJ Marketing Communication Ltd.

When the bone in Gregory Porter’s shoulder broke, he didn’t yet know that he would be saved by the rhythm in his blood. At the time, Porter was in his early 20s and a successful football linebacker. Indeed, he had almost made it to the pros. But only almost. His injury made it impossible for him to lift even the lightest of objects. Porter was heartbroken, and he withdrew into the jazz bars of San Diego, hiding from football, from other people, but also from himself. He sat down in front of his record player to listen to the quiet tones of the pianist Nat King Cole. Slowly, Porter, the failed athlete, became one of the most successful jazz singers of our time. Slowly and quietly.

More than 20 years later, Porter sinks into an armchair in the concert hall of the Biarritz casino. He is not, for once, on stage. Rather he is sitting in a chair that had, just an hour before, been occupied by a member of the audience.

“I was looking for a new identity back then,” Porter, 43, says. Did he find it?

“A small, quiet protest," says porter. "Wonderful."

Today, at a time when music is loud and the videos garish, when marketing seems omnipresent, Gregory Porter sang his way onto the world’s stages and to the top of the charts with calm and perseverance. Over time, he became one of those rare artists who is both quiet and successful.

Indeed, he is so successful that almost every one of his concerts is sold out, particularly in Europe. On a recent Thursday in August, he played in Biarritz, a French seaside town on the Atlantic coast. The beach can be seen through the glass front of the casino, a colorful mixture of sun umbrellas, surfers and children at play. Inside the casino, guests move slowly and more deliberately. It is also much cooler than it is outside. Burgundy armchairs sit elegantly on dark wood flooring and a nocturne is coming from a piano. Porter appreciates the calm.

“Don’t forget the music,” Porter’s mother told him just a few days prior to her death.

Porter didn’t sing his first songs on stage. Rather, he sang them in the church of his mother, a pastor from Bakersfield, where he grew up with his seven siblings. It was in this church that young Gregory Porter learned the blues and sang the gospel together with workers from the South – and the songs didn’t just reverberate in the church’s nave, they also reverberated in his heart. But even as his heart told him one thing, logic was telling him something completely different: Get a scholarship and go to college, Gregory! And pursue a career in sports.

Porter got his sports scholarship at the University of San Diego and studied urban planning. Not long after, his mother was diagnosed with cancer. “Don’t forget the music,” she told him just a few days before passing away.

After his injury, when Porter was struggling to come to terms with what had happened, his mother’s words kept coming back to him. “Even if I fail with my music, I have to try,” he remembers telling himself. “For my mother.” He began taking part in jazz sessions, moved to New York and got a once-a-week gig singing in a club in Harlem.

Gregory Porter

Since then, Porter has released three albums. Two of them were nominated for a Grammy and his most recent album, “Liquid Spirit,” won one. Currently, he is on tour through the US and Europe and plans to play 18 concerts next April in Britain alone. In Germany, his album has climbed to No. 8. A career that began quietly can no longer be ignored.

At the beginning of his show in Biarritz, Porters is merely a large shadow on the stage, hardly visible. The spotlights and the gaze of the audience are focused on his saxophone player as he plays the first notes of “Painted on Canvas,” a song from Porter’s second album. Then Porter starts singing, with no introduction.

When the spotlight shines on Porter, his eyes are still covered in shadow. His newsboy cap, which serves as both his trademark and as a kind of shield, is pulled down low over his face. Like in every concert, and in almost every picture of him, Porter is wearing an elegant jacket and handkerchief, a small constant as he performs on constantly changing stages. Isn’t it a great evening, he asks, adding that he already took a swim in the sea. It’s enough to make one want to sit down with him in a bar and talk about the beauty of the world.

Or about love. That, after all, is what most of his songs are about – at first glance, at least. They’re about the exuberant power of love (“Wind Song”); about a visit to the future father-in-law to ask for his daughter’s hand (“Real Good Hands”); or about faded love (“Hey Laura”). But at second glance, between the lines of his lyrics, one can find plenty of social criticism, protest and Weltschmerz.

Of course a piece like “No Love Dying” is first and foremost a romantic song, says Porter after his concert in Biarritz. But it is also a critique of all forms of negativity, such as hate – an old acquaintance that keeps coming back. Even in 2015, the year the American newsmagazine Time ran a title photo of a masked black man running away from police. On the cover, the year 1968 is crossed out in red, replaced by 2015. As a child, Porter witnessed crosses being set alight on his family’s front yard and their windows being smashed. Before answering each question, Porter seems to search deep within himself, taking his time to find just the right words. Porter feels at ease with silence.

Porter still remembers clearly the quiet protest of Nat King Cole. As a boy, Porter watched one of the last episodes of the “Nat King Cole Show”. When talking about it, he closes his eyes and begins to sing: “I thought you loved me, you said you loved me, we planned together, to dream forever.” And further: “The dream has ended, for true love died, the night that blossom fell and touched two lips that lied.” For Porter, the song is clearly not just directed at a faded love, but at his sponsors, who had cut his show’s funding a short time before. “A small, quiet protest,” Porter says. “Wonderful.”

Porter’s own quiet protest became a few decibels louder during the last song he sang before our interview on this evening in Biarritz: “1960 What.” The song decries the death of a young man on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. The name Martin Luther King isn’t mentioned, but the images of the balcony where the civil rights activist was shot to death immediately come to mind. Again, the spotlight is trained on the saxophone player, as though Porter can only give voice to his protest under the protection of darkness.

The music has come to an end and Porter is standing behind a cordon at the entrance to the casino signing CDs. Despite his height of 1.90 meters (6’3”), Porter can’t be seen behind the crowd of heads and raised hands holding mobile phones aimed in the singer’s direction. Among the crowd are plenty of 20-somethings, along with many women and men who could be their grandparents.

For Porter, jazz isn’t just music for an aging audience. He is also known among younger listeners, particularly since house stars like Disclosure and Claptone discovered his music. “If just 1 percent of Disclosure’s fans would come to my concerts, that would be fantastic,” Porter says. The Claptone remix of Porter’s song “Liquid Spirit” was one of the most played songs on Ibiza this summer.

After about half an hour, the crowd has dispersed. The window facing the sea has darkened to a deep blue. The silence in the room is interrupted only by the crash of the waves outside. Porter has come out from behind the cordon. With a beer bottle in one hand, he strolls around in front of the concert hall and smiles to himself. Quietly.