Athlete-Turned-Jazz Musician Gregory Porter On His Influences

Jan 1, 2014
Originally published on January 6, 2014 8:56 am



From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. Happy New Year.

For the next few minutes, we're going to revisit one of my favorite music interviews of 2013 with Gregory Porter. In his first semester playing football at San Diego State University, he severely injured his shoulder. The bad news, doctors told Porter his football days were over. The good news, the school let him keep his football scholarship. Now, suddenly, without football but with a lot of time on his hands, Gregory Porter searched for a new calling. He found his voice.


GREGORY PORTER: (Singing) Un-reroute the rivers, let the dammed water be. There are some people down the way that's thirsty, so let the liquid spirit free.

CORNISH: Porter is now a world-renowned jazz singer, and the track from his album, "Liquid Spirit," has been nominated for a Grammy.


PORTER: (Singing) Get ready for the wave it might strike like a final flood. The people hadn't drank in so long, the water won't even make mud. After it comes, it might come with a steady flow. Grab the roots of the tree down by the river, dip your cup when your spirit's low. Clap your hands now.

CORNISH: I spoke with Gregory Porter about his path from football to jazz. He says it began with his mother and one of their last conversations.

PORTER: She had cancer, breast cancer. And she - on her deathbed, she had a couple days left. And we were talking about everything, you know, children and what I'll do with the rest of my life. And I wanted to tell her - I was like, Mom, I'm studying city planning and I'll be a good municipal worker or, you know, whatever I'll be. So you don't have to worry about me, you know, when you leave.

And she just kind of out of the - she said to me, she's like, you know, Gregory, singing is one of the best things you do, so don't forget about that as well. And in a way, she kind of just, like, gave me this surprising nudge. She said, sing, baby, and let your hair down, you know. And so that's what I'm doing now.

CORNISH: What kind of music had you been listening to before? You know, what brought you to jazz?

PORTER: I heard myself in jazz. My grandmother and my mother and my grandfather, their style of praying was - all day long, they would pray by singing and humming. (Humming). And some of the notes that they were hitting - I was acquainted to jazz saxophone players and, you know, come to find out after, you know, studying it and digging into it for a while, it was the same thing, you know. My grandmother and Coltrane did have a connection. And my mother also loved Nat King Cole. So that was some of the first music that I heard, yeah.

CORNISH: On a song like - is it "Wolfcry"?

PORTER: "Wolfcry."

CORNISH: That has a kind of a croon to it and a gentleness to it.


PORTER: (Singing) The night has fallen. And you have soaked your see-through silken gown with tears. Your love was all in and he mistook your come-stay call for come quick, dear.

CORNISH: Your writing is so evocative, and it made sense to me when I learned that you also have a musical theater background, like you've written a musical.

PORTER: Yeah. Yeah. This musical comes back to Nat King Cole and...

CORNISH: And we should say this musical was called "Nat King Cole & Me."


PORTER: Nat - right, "Nat King Cole & Me." But the story is the story of my childhood and how I came to Nat King Cole's music so strongly in the absence of my father. It was like seeing his image in this, you know, this elegant, handsome, strong man, sitting by a fire, looking like somebody's daddy. And I was like, wow, OK. Then I put it on and then, you know, (singing) Smile though your heart is aching. Smile even though, you know. The greatest thing you'll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return. You know, you'll be a man someday, you know. These powerful words I started to listen to and they affected me.

CORNISH: Can I ask about your father? What happened to him?

PORTER: He was this charismatic preacher, singer, painter. These are all the things I found out at his funeral. You know, after he divorced my mother, he came around but not often.

CORNISH: So there's no musical connection there?

PORTER: Well, there is now. I've created - in the musical, I created an apology from him. His character actually says to me that he's sorry. And once I performed it on stage at the Denver Center, I actually released that bitterness that I had towards him. And in the writing and in this record, I actually have come to the place that I have to give my mother all the credit and love that she is due. But I also have to give my father some thanks for my creativity. I'm almost certain, genetically, it comes from him and my singing voice comes from him.

CORNISH: It does?

PORTER: So, yeah. And so I have to say, wow, I have something to be thankful for. And he did give me some gifts that are paving away for me, so my burden is lighter, you know. I'm now quoting some of the lyrics from one of the songs called "Free."


PORTER: (Singing) So I'd be young and free. Daddy make a way for me. He paved the road so my burden is lighter. And momma did just the same, dropping love just like rain. She said guide your heart from it, come into the light. Free. Free. Free.

I think part of my job as a songwriter is to go back in my memory and pull up those pains for other people because somebody else is going to come along who didn't have a good issue with their father. And so there's a song that I'm currently working on called - he was a painter, a house painter. And the song is called "A Man on a Ladder." And I stand at the bottom of the ladder, waiting to catch some of the overspray from the paint so it would land on my face, so people would know that I was the son of this painter.

CORNISH: You know, if you mention a new song you're writing, I can't help but wonder what it sounds like. Would you sing any of it?

PORTER: Well, yeah. (Singing) There's a man on a ladder, way up in the sky. No, actually, I can't.

CORNISH: You had me right there.


CORNISH: I'm just going to say that.


PORTER: Well, yeah. So (Singing) he had a big head and real wide shoulders and real small feet, so small I couldn't see his footprints. You know, I can't see his footsteps and I don't know which way to go because I didn't have a man to guide me and lead me and direct me in the way that, you know, fathers do. There you go.

CORNISH: Well, thank you so much for telling us these stories. It was really amazing. I appreciate it.

PORTER: Thank you so much.

CORNISH: That was Gregory Porter. His album is called "Liquid Spirit."


PORTER: (Singing) There's much more story that I could tell to make the hardest hearts swell. This is the story when love was king. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.