The Daily Telegraph
Despite recent tragedy, jazz singer Gregory Porter remains upbeat – hat or no hat, he tells James Hall
Gregory Porter has been thinking a lot about space recently. Last month the jazz singer sang America the Beautiful (via the internet) at the launch of Nasa’s latest rocket to Mars, while the video for his recent single Concorde saw the 48-year-old don a space suit and go on an interplanetary adventure with his seven-year-old son Demyan.
Like many children, Porter wanted to be an astronaut growing up. His class would watch space shuttle launches at school, and sometimes the returning orbiters would land near his childhood home in Bakersfield, California. His heroes were Buzz Aldrin and Ron Mcnair, the African-american astronaut killed in the Challenger disaster in 1986.
“I don’t pretend to be a scientist or have any in-depth knowledge of the stars, but I’m fascinated and inspired by space,” Porter says, his baritone as mellifluous in conversation as it is on record.
Porter is used to dizzying heights. That voice has made an unlikely star of the burly 6ft 3in singer, who is never seen in public without his black deerstalker hat and open balaclava (worn to cover childhood surgical scars). His major label debut, 2013’s Liquid Spirit, became the most streamed jazz album of all time, and his last two albums have reached the top five in the UK album charts, seeing him jockey for position with mainstream pop acts such as Beyoncé and Ed Sheeran. He has played Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage, sung for the Queen and won two Grammy awards.
Porter’s fixation with flight infuses his new album, All Rise. This is partly because when he writes, he taps into childhood feelings, where, he says, honesty lurks. All Rise is peppered with lyrical references to lifting off and ascension, as well as other memories, like “popcorn smells on carousels” (in Merry Go Round).
Musically, tracks such as Concorde and Phoenix have much in common with the soul-funk of Earth, Wind & Fire. But you suspect another aspect of space flight is playing on his mind: escape. Although his sixth album was recorded before coronavirus upended everyone’s lives, Porter is only too aware of the problems affecting planet Earth right now. Space is the most cheery place to be.
“We have to get out of 2020,” he laughs. “What a year. I just want to cuss right now.”
Porter has had a devastating few months. One of eight siblings, he lost his brother Lloyd to complications due to Covid-19 in May. His sister Patrice died shortly after, from breast cancer. “There are six of us now. We are very close… [It’s been] very difficult,” he says. Professionally, Porter estimates he has cancelled or rescheduled more than 100 concerts due to the pandemic, including four nights at the Royal Albert Hall. He is, though, an optimistic person. Since his voice is frequently referred to as “creamy”, and the experience of listening to him sing compared to
“taking a bath”, it would be difficult for him to sound downbeat. There’s an ineffable comfort to his tone. The poet John Betjeman once said that, come the apocalypse, he’d like to be in the haberdashery department of Peter Jones because nothing bad could ever happen there. It’s the same with Porter: nothing bad could ever happen when he’s singing. He’s a snug sonic shield.
This positive nature, he says, comes from his late mother, Ruth, a minister who brought the children up singlehandedly. They grew up in near poverty, attending church and steeped in gospel music. Porter excelled at football (the American kind) at high school and had dreams of turning professional, but a shoulder injury put paid to that and, instead, he moved to New York with Lloyd, where he worked in his brother’s restaurant and indulged his passion for singing.
A weekly residence at the (now closed) St Nick’s Pub in Harlem led to a deal with independent US record label Motéma before he signed for Blue Note/decca in 2013.
But, despite Porter’s innate optimism, there is grit in his voice when the conversation turns to the forthcoming American election. The vote has to be a “profound slam dunk and rebuke of who [Trump] is”, says Porter (we’re speaking before his own state’s senator, Kamala Harris, was announced as Joe Biden’s running mate but you suspect he’d agree with her assertion that the election is a “battle for the soul” of America).
“The unfortunate thing [is that Trump] has set us on a course that will take 30 or 40 years to right. He has given authority, money and confidence to the darkest nature of my country.
And it’s frightening. He uses words so casually. The idea that words have not turned this world upside down… All that Hitler had was words before he picked up the gun.”
Rather than galvanise love across America, Trump sows division, Porter argues. This is why at the Nasa launch he sang the line in America the Beautiful about brotherhood uniting his country “from sea to shining sea” in hope rather than as fact. You could hear the plea in Porter’s voice. “Yeah, I took my time with that line,” he says.
Porter knows racism. He was frisked by police 18 times when at high school. Police assume that arresting a black person will have no consequences: “The assumption is that this person has no family of any standing, that they have no money, they have no lawyer. [It’s] the idea that you are ‘less than’.” This simply doesn’t happen with white people.
Racism exists in Britain, too, Porter adds. He has received unwelcoming looks in shops and hotels. “It can be a problem. I think more in the UK it’s class. But class has something to do with race as well. Britain is an old country with enormous triumphs but
‘When we get out of this thing, people are going to need music’
enormous problems as well.”
As our conversation winds up, I ask Porter if he’d ever perform without his trademark headgear. “Will you ever see me with my dreadlocks? Maybe [on] my final tour,” he replies.
It’s daft but his answer throws me. His deerstalker is so much part of his identity that I’ve never actually considered the hairstyle beneath it. I tell him I didn’t know he had dreads. “You’re the first, maybe the second, person I’ve told. How long? Maybe 10 to 14 inches.” He jokes that he’ll have to watch out for paparazzi hiding in bushes now that his secret’s out.
But maybe he won’t hang around long enough to get snapped. He can’t wait to get back on the road. Despite the world’s woes, he knows music will endure. “When we get out of this thing, people are going to need music to dance to, to make love to, to party to, to commute to. Grandma’s going to want to sit with her grandbabies. And what’s that playing in the background? Music.”
And Porter will be there, spreading his own brand of positivity. “There are some artists who want to pick out the bad stuff in life. They want to have a bad day damn near every day. But that’s not me,” he says. “That’s not me.”
All Rise is out on Decca Records/blue Note on Aug 28