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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 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.

"Before I started recording, I always had been steeped in bebop," he fondly recalled. I played a lot of Charlie Parker tunes. I would always play the standards I grew up on from playing music with my father. When I first started, I played tunes that were more entrenched in a little more avant-garde, more freestyle type of playing, and I liked the situations where I'm really just letting go."

Porter attributed the process of letting go and just surrendering his spirit to the music to the teachings of his parents, both of whom taught him to be grateful and humble for his abundant blessings.

"It's truly a blessing to be able to play music. And you don't take for granted when people embrace your music, and it makes you feel like, hey, I'm going to try to continue to give you the best. Believe me, I have no problem of going out on the road because it's a blessing to do what you do. That's why a lot of artists need to start counting their blessings and stop saying, "Oh, I'm this and I'm that." "No. It's not like that, and we need to understand that. I mean, music has never been like that. Now maybe images and that kind of thing have been like that but music hasn't, and I just don't look at it that way."

More words of wisdom from his father were the catalyst for showing him how to get through the vicissitudes of the entertainment world.

"He (his dad) said "first and foremost, a good musician must like people and must understand that his primary purpose is to satisfy the audience and not himself. One of the things that he taught me was: "Here I am, a little kid, running around going on jobs with him, and he's teaching me all of these Duke Ellington standards, and he's trying to explain to me though, in the midst of it all, about the value of life and the importance of the value of life and how certain things have nothing to do with glamour or glitter at all. And that has really made me understand what I'm doing and what my purpose is. You know, we're not perfect in life and you have to make a contribution in some way, and I know musically that's what I'm here to do. That's why I think it's important to give from my heart and do the best that I can because music is supposed to move you. It's supposed to be healing—I know it moves me. When I hear a song, man, he emphasized, it heals me in a way. That's where I am and where I'm trying to get to. I think music has to make you feel good and make you soul search—whatever it may be—in whatever way you hear music, it's supposed to move you," he asserted.

"Another quote my dad said was "the most important thing to do is to find out who you are, admit it, be the best that you can be. I think we're just taking up space if we don't.

Porter realized who he was early on in his career. He started shaping his way of approaching music while a student at Northeastern Illinois University. He received a Bachelor's Degree in Music before attending Berklee School of Music in Boston. He taught music at the junior high school level, and studied piano at Virginia Commonwealth University with the esteemed pianist and Marsalis family patriarch Ellis Marsalis. He recalled how Marsalis, with whom Porter said he had remained friends after he left school, gave him some sage advice about deciding on his artistic path.

"I talked with Ellis (renowned by musicians for his easy-going demeanor) and he said, "Man, what do you really want to do? Do you want to play music or be some kind of professor?" I said, "I want to play music. He told me "then you shouldn't be here." Porter said that he left the next day and started taking the necessary steps to form his own band. Some years later, young Porter had played with and or toured with such luminaries as saxophonist Pharoah Sanders; organist Jack McDuff; and R&B crooner Gene Chandler. In 1991 well-known Executive Producer Guy Eckstine, son of legendary singer Billy Eckstine, signed Porter with Verve Forecast. Porter would proceed to complete four well-received CDs for the label: Pocket City, 1992; Straight to The Point, 1993; Undercover, 1994; and Lay Your Hands on Me, 1996.

Porter cumulatively recorded 43 songs on those four albums, and composed or co-composed (primarily composed) 39 of the tunes. His first album consisted of the bustling title track, with Porter on a compelling alto sax; the follow-up sophomore CD featured five ballads, one on which he was joined by his dad on a lovely piano solo, the wistful "Autumn in Europe;" and an atmospheric, soaring soprano on the halcyon "It's Been Awhile."

Undercover featured the late-night relaxing vibe of "After Hours," which is highlighted by a funky solo by guitarist Norman Brown; and two more mid-tempo ballads "There's Only You" (a radio favorite), and the hauntingly beautiful "Almost There." As Porter offered, not one of his albums sounds exactly like the previous one as "each has its own flavor."

The coda to his Verve set was the spiritually titled Lay Your Hands on Me. The title track places Porter in a different setting on soprano sax, where the opening finds him playing in his signature, soaring, ever-reaching manner followed by a foreboding bass solo. He is unrestrained and sounds like he is in a race within himself to express emotions that are boundless. He described the sonic sensibility of the tune.

"Like John Coltrane playing A Love Supreme, where he just played really out and played beyond the melodic structure of the song, I just tried to go out on the edge of the melodic structure that I had to deal with in that song, and I liked the hip hop flavor that co-composer-multi-instrumentalist Chris Cuben-Tatum (La-Ron Wilburn aka rapper Me Phi Me also co-wrote the track along with Porter, and Cuben-Tatum, the latter of whom also sang background vocals, and played various instruments) did so well—and I wanted them both (hip hop and bop) to go together."

Other highlights on his fourth album were the breezy, popular, radio-friendly Lake Shore Drive"; the Quiet Storm sultry vibe of "One More Chance" penned by multi-instrumentalist-composer-producer Chuckii Booker and sung by the incomparable Lalah Hathaway. Multi-instrumentalist and distinguished vocalist, Brian McKnight, wrote and performed the plaintive "Just Wanna Be with You." Porter enthusiastically added that "you can't imagine all of the fun that I had working with all these great artists."

He maintained that the song that was the most emotional for him was the anthemic "We Are One," which he scribed, and said that he played in one take. Not unlike most of the saxophonist's tunes, the ballad begins very calmly before building to that signature soaring Porter finish—this time on alto sax.

"When I played it, it was just a really emotional song for me—both when I wrote it and when I recorded it. It made me think about all of us," he reflected. "We are all the same. Maybe we don't know it. Maybe we don't understand it but we're all the same. Maybe we don't want to see it, but we are all one."

Art Porter Jr. was posthumously inducted into the Arkansas Jazz Hall of Fame, Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame, and Arkansas Black Hall of Fame. In 1998 the tribute CD For Art's Sake was released by Verve (with beautifully insightful liner notes penned by Eckstine). It consisted of appearances by (among others) the ubiquitous Lorber and Ritenour, and the ace altoist, Gerald Albright, on two originals: "Mr. Porter" and "Little Rock;" Porter's live performances of some of his most popular songs; and his soulful rendition of "The Christmas Song." He was indeed a special artist and person, and is profoundly missed. God Bless Art for his treasured work of art and the Porter family; surviving member Alan Burroughs; and the dear families of his fellow passengers who lost their lives on November 23, 1996.

Photo Credit: The Art Porter Jr. Family

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