SFJAZZ.org | 5 Things To Know About Gregory Porter

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five things to know about:
GREGORY PORTER 

May 5, 2022 | by Richard Scheinin

Gregory Porter

Jazz’s preeminent male singer, Gregory Porter is a two-time GRAMMY winner with a social conscience — and a voice that swoops and cries, always reaching back to the gospel and blues of his youth.

On June 8, Porter will open the 39th Annual San Francisco Jazz Festival with a performance at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland. If you’ve ever seen him sing, you know what to expect: His music is about the big beat, hand-clapping grooves, and the irrepressible strength of love. He references an entire tradition, from Joe Williams to Marvin Gaye and the political appeals of Gil Scott-Heron. His outraged “1960 What?” directly evokes civil disturbances in Detroit in 1967, but it might as well be about Ferguson in 2014 — or George Floyd’s Minneapolis in 2020.

Here are five things to know about Gregory Porter.

  1. He learned to sing in the “dusty-board churches” of Bakersfield, Ca., where his late mother, Ruth, was pastor of a storefront mission that backed onto an alley. The family – Gregory, his seven brothers and sisters, and mother Ruth – would pray for hours on end. “And of course prayer in the Black church is not only a matter of `Our Father, who art in heaven,’” he explains. “Because you’re on your knees and you’re making these noises – it’s like moaning and wailing and praying in song.”
  2. He has cited Nat King Cole, Bill Withers, and Donny Hathaway as inspirations for his own singing. He hears a cultural closeness — especially the influence of the Black church in their voices and musical attitudes. His favorite album is Hathaway’s Live.
  3. As a 6-foot 5-inch teenager from Bakersfield, he enrolled at San Diego State and dreamed of a professional football career. But a shoulder injury ended those dreams and pushed him toward music. He moved to Brooklyn in the early 2000s, where he worked as a chef — and also performed — in his brother Lloyd’s restaurant.
  4. He didn’t make it big until his early 40s. Liquid Spirit, his 2013 breakthrough album, is said to be the most streamed jazz album of all time. His albums have sold millions of copies — not typical for today’s jazz musicians.
  5. He believes that gospel music and jazz are forever intertwined: “When I first started listening to jazz, I understood the feeling,” he says. “I would listen to the great saxophone players, and I would hear the voices of my grandmother, my mother and my grandfather, stylistically. There’s no getting away from the importance of this gospel-blues that finds its way into jazz music. It’s in the root.”

Gregory Porter performs at Oakland's Paramount Theatre on June 8. Tickets are available here

A staff writer at SFJAZZ, Richard Scheinin is a lifelong journalist. He was the San Jose Mercury News' classical music and jazz critic for more than a decade and has profiled scores of public figures, from Ike Turner to Tony La Russa and the Dalai Lama.

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