Porter croons sweet tune after football career is sidetracked
FEB 17, 2014 5:00p ET
Gregory Porter was in college, and his mother was on her deathbed. An injury had ended his football career at San Diego State before it had a chance to become anything, but he had stuck around to get his degree, spending his spare time in jazz clubs, learning how to be a singer.
As his mother’s life was ending, you could say his was beginning. Porter was standing at that crossroads of young adulthood, where the path to the dreams of your youth appears to split from the path to personal security.
One of Porter’s last conversations with his mom was about this choice. He thought she would encourage him to get a nice job and find a nice girl and settle down in a nice house and pay his taxes. She did not.
“She said to me, ‘Baby, don’t forget about music, it’s one of the best things you do,’ Porter told FOXSports.com recently. “It was shocking, in a way, to hear her say this. Think about this risky route. That gave me some freedom to try to do it.”
This year, Porter won the Grammy for “best jazz vocal album” for Liquid Spirit. For someone without a nuanced understanding of jazz recordings, classic American soul and R&B music – Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, et al. – would be a useful analog to Porter’s sound. He grew up singing gospel music in the church, where his mother was a minister. He considers Nat King Cole a strong influence.
“We grew up listening to anything that was coming on Soul Train,” he said. “We had to have the house clean before we could watch Soul Train. My older brother’s records, my mother’s records. From Bill Withers to Mahalia Jackson, that’s the musical influence that I had.”
His interest in that kind of music distinguished him from his teammates at San Diego State in the early ‘90s.
“Around the football complex, I remember songs that were popular at the time, Color Me Badd, 'I Wanna Sex You Up,' Keith Sweat, maybe Jodeci, things like that,” Porter said. “But I wasn’t really into singing that kind of music. There were a lot of guys on the team at the time who wanted to be singers, thought they were singers. I remember a big lineman, a receiver, Merton Harris, even Marshall Faulk, that thought they were pretty good singers. But not really.”
So there would be some singing done during practices. One time teammates asked Porter to sing something, and he went with an old jazz song called “Moody’s Mood for Love.”
“They thought that was the strangest thing,” he said. “They were like, ‘Man, that’s interesting. What is that?’ I was probably a different kind of bird.”
Had it not been for a rotator cuff injury, Porter’s singing might have stayed a practice-field novelty act. Liberated from the schedule of a college athlete, though, Porter found himself knocking around in jazz clubs, trying out his voice behind the mics at jam sessions. He was naïve. He imagined a jam session as a room full of musicians, and they’d play and he’d sing and everybody would just have a grand ol’ time.
“It’s the truth, but you have to have the music you want to do and you have to have it in the proper way and you have to have a discussion with the musicians,” he said. “It’s not just a karaoke situation. So I just watched. I sat and watched.”
Well, you hang around long enough, and people start to ask what you’re up to.
“I slowly immersed myself into the scene,” he said. “People started seeing me and I’d say, ‘I’m a singer,’ and eventually somebody wants to hear you sing. I think the first thing I did was ‘Stormy Monday,” a blues song.”
The audience dug it, and Porter’s career started to build. Teammates would stop by. Faulk and Harris would watch. Some others with names you may not remember. Porter’s playing days were over, but he was still cutting video for the team, so he was part of it.
“I needed music as a solace,” he said, “and the jam sessions became that for me.”
He sang for fun, of course, but the challenge was in developing a vocal signature. You may hear “jazz vocalist” and imagine a bunch of Louis Armstrong scatting. That’s not what Porter does, though, he explains, a trained ear can hear it beneath the surface of his music.
“If you listen to my music, I’m essentially scatting with my lyrics,” he said. “Generally my style is to, the first time I sing the lyric, I sing the exact melody, but the second time I go through, I deviate from the melody, which is something every musician and every instrumentalist is doing. I love to scat. I love to improvise over a set of chord changes. It’s definitely something that I do and I love to. That’s something that’s constantly going on in my head. As I think about a song, I’m constantly scatting.”
Porter’s debut album, "Water," was nominated for a Grammy in 2010, and a track from his sophomore album was nominated for “best traditional R&B performance” in 2012. Last year, he signed with the iconic jazz label Blue Note, which produced the album that won Porter his Grammy.
“I used to collect Blue Note records, specifically Blue Note records,” he said. “Even if you didn’t know the artist, you knew it was going to be good music because it was a Blue Note record. To be on this iconic label is amazing.”
Porter has also acted in a Broadway show, "It Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues," and has had some opportunities to move into more commercially lucrative styles of music -- he’s performed with Van Morrison -- although he says, for now, he feels at home in jazz.
“I’m a jazz vocalist, but my style is encroaching upon other styles,” he said. “It’s not an unusual thing to blur the lines of the music.”