Tribute to Art Porter Jr.: Reflections of a Grateful Art

Liz Goodwin By

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During the early to mid '90s, soprano and alto saxophonist-composer Art Porter, Jr. was charting a blazing course on the contemporary jazz soundscape. The 35-year-old Little Rock, Arkansas native had recorded and released four albums for Verve Records. He had been a guest on the albums of such titans as keyboardists Ramsey Lewis; Jeff Lorber (who also produced and played on three of Porter's albums); and Tom Grant; guitarists Lee Ritenour and Evan Marks; and powerhouse vocalist El DeBarge, to name a few.

He and his father, respected pianist Art Porter Sr., had played a stirring rendition of "Amazing Grace" at a prayer breakfast for then President Bill Clinton's inaugural year of office in 1993; the younger Porter appeared as a guest musician in The Tonight Show with Jay Leno's house band under the musical direction (at that time) of the inimitable saxophonist Branford Marsalis; and he gave a turbo-charged performance on the late comedian Bernie Mac's Midnight Mac HBO show. He also performed in the all-star tribute band to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Verve Records with, among other musical heavyweights, pianist Herbie Hancock and trumpeter Roy Hargrove.

It was safe to say that the amiable musician with the hip attire, infectious smile, and irrepressible sound was relishing the ascent of his career.

Porter's ascent, however, was tragically truncated.

On Saturday, November 23, 1996, after performing at the Golden Jubilee Jazz Festival in Thailand to honor the 50th anniversary of the reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the reedman and four other passengers were traveling in a boat that sprang a leak and began to sink on the Kratha Taek Reservoir. Porter, the boatman, and a married couple who were both music teachers in Bangkok, all drowned—only Porter's guitarist and good friend Alan Burroughs survived. The tragedy put a pall on the jazz community and shocked those who knew the affable artist.

It's difficult to fathom that 20 years have elapsed since this gifted and beloved musician with the alternately tender, soaring soprano, and fierce, brazen alto sax sound's, sudden tragic passing. He was survived by his wife Barbi (who sadly passed away of cancer in 2001); two young sons, Art III and Arrington (then six, and three years old, respectively); his mother Thelma Pauline Porter; four siblings; and many other family members, friends, and fans alike who continue to experience the void of his ebullient personality and vibrant devotion and commitment to his craft. His father, Art Sr., an equally cherished and greatly talented and respected musician, choir director, and bandleader, passed away of lung cancer in 1993.

Clearly, Porter, who was born Arthur Lee Porter, Jr. on August 3, 1961 to an exceptional musical family (he and his siblings performed in a band together while in their teens), was not unlike the droves of other musicians whose contributions were curtailed at an early age. Though I never had the pleasure of meeting him face to face nor in seeing him perform live (other than on videos), I did have the honor of interviewing him via phone on three separate occasions from 1993, until August 20th—just three months prior to his death, and nearly three weeks after his 35th birthday. There were things about his career and outlook on life that he shared during those lengthy interviews that never saw print. He possessed a warm, generous spirit and gentle, compassionate demeanor that could be instantly felt in his music. He laughed easily and spoke in an almost boyish, soft-spoken voice. It could be perceived that he cared a great deal about not only his music but also, and even more importantly, the importance of treating fellow musicians and people in general with respect and dignity—something that he was careful never to take for granted.

"What I try to do when I'm around musicians is, I tell them that I appreciate them and their music because you never know when you're going to see them again. You just never know," he said from his then Murfreesboro, Tennessee home via phone. Porter's declaration sounds chilling now given the fate that would soon befall him, but it is also comforting because it gave insight to an extremely low-keyed man who knew what his place in this world was, and he didn't waste any time achieving and accomplishing what he was divinely appointed to do. He continued with his explanation of his musical purpose.

"God has been so good to me," he said with fervor. "He has kept me grounded and rooted to the point where I can be focused on the important things. I've always tried to do the best that I can and always enjoyed doing what I'm doing. I just have to take one day at a time. Even with the music that I'm doing now I think that I'm doing that; It's just the way that it (the music) is labeled, it may not come across but if you hear it from your heart, then you can hear that."

One thing that could be heard quite audibly was Porter Jr.'s tremendous admiration and adoration for his father. Porter performed frequently with the senior Porter, while the saxophonist was still in his teen and pre-teen years. He performed pianist-composer-bandleader Duke Ellington standards with his father's trio in and around the Little Rock area. Originally a drummer, Porter Jr. was drawn to the allure of the saxophone and the fact that it allowed him to be upfront closer so that he could communicate with the crowd. In spite of his zeal for performing, Art. Jr., though, was soon barred from playing in clubs because he was a minor.

However, former President Bill Clinton, who was the governor of Arkansas at that time, and as we all know, a saxophonist and huge jazz fan, interceded. Mr. Clinton was successful in establishing and passing a law, now known as The Art Porter Bill, that allows underage musicians to play in venues as long as they are accompanied by a parent or guardian in a supervisory manner. Of course, this was a prominent turning point in young Porter's career, as it allowed him to hone his performing chops and to explore the nuances of being a good musician and effective communicator onstage.

Due to his father's influence and establishment of Mr. Clinton's The Art Porter Bill, young Art was able to perform with his father henceforth. He was exposed to the sounds of Ellington, and illustrious saxophonists John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Gene Ammons, and Julian "Cannonball" Adderley. Though a self-confessed "be-bopper at heart," Porter said that he could have chosen to play traditional, classic jazz, but opted instead to express himself in a more R&B-infused sound rooted in elements of the tradition. He spoke of that during the aforementioned phone interview three months before his passing.
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