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Interview with Dr. Lewis Porter

By Published: February 24, 2004
LP: By the way, I have a number of interests that don't even show up in my writing. I'm serious about film history, and teach an occasional course on the subject. I'm interested in all aspects of science and in the history of names. But I do have a mission. In 1977, I got my first job teaching jazz history, a course at Tufts University. I'd been listening voraciously to jazz since I was about 14, and I had done some reading about jazz. When I started teaching, I had to take seriously what people were writing about jazz. And what happened to me, is that I found I couldn't find an acceptable text for the courses! I couldn't find one that gave a good listening knowledge of the music or that even got the names and dates right! And I became so incensed that my mission then became to see if I could make some progress in the accuracy of what gets published in jazz. In 1978, I published an essay in a journal called The Black Perspective in Music where I compared the various texts on jazz available at the time, and found so many errors in them, I could barely list them all! Over the years, publishers have asked me to review manuscripts for them. And when people asked me to recommend folks to them, I found myself at a loss, so I decided to start training people, and in September, 1997, I started my own masters program at Rutgers, and so now I head the only program anywhere on jazz history and research. I train people who perform jazz or play an instrument and want to get serious about jazz history, teaching, and writing. So my current mission is to have such an impact.

AAJ: If readers would like to learn more about the masters program, how can they do so?

LP: That information is on the Web in a couple of places, especially at My email address is there, and people are welcome to contact me after they look at the material.

AAJ: One final question: Are you working on any books or articles now, and what do you have in mind for the future?

LP: Right now, I'm exhausted! The Coltrane book really knocked me out! I did recently complete another large project for the Baker's Dictionary of Musicians , which is known to be the best one volume biographical dictionary of classical musicians.The last edition was edited by the late Nicolas Slonimsky. They want to expand that to include all kinds of music. It's going to be four or five big volumes of over 1000 pages each, to come out at the end of this year. For that purpose, I put together about 1500 biographies of jazz musicians, and those biographies contain a lot of my geneological research- for example, you'll find familiy histories of Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, etc., that you won't find anywhere else, since it's my original research. You'll find itineraries of where people performed, specific dates that they were with specific bands. That was quite a project, and I'm taking a bit of a break before starting anything new. I'm concentrating on two things right now: one is teaching my graduate courses, and the other is getting out and performing more, and I have some college concerts coming up. My big project this summer will be to record my first CD of my own music.

AAJ: Congratulations! Your own compositions?

LP: Yes, although I'll probably include "Central Park West" by Coltrane. And some of my compositions are arrangements of folk songs, which is something that Coltrane liked as well in connection with his interest in world music. I have a great band: Harvie Swartz on bass, Dan Faulk on sax, Ken Wessel, guitar. Ken has been touring internationally with Ornette Coleman, but he also plays beautiful straight ahead jazz. My work is more modal than straight ahead. The drummer is a fantastic young musician named Marcus Baylor, who is touring with Kenny Garrett and Cassandra Wilson. It's a very fine band, and I'm lucky that these guys are available now and then for me to get them together. We've done a number of college concerts, and I think we're ready to make a recording. Dave Liebman will be a guest soloist on two numbers—we've known each other for 20 years but this will be the first time we've played together.

AAJ: We could go on and on, but we're running out of time. I really appreciate your doing the interview, Dr. Porter.

LP: My pleasure.

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