The Sunday Football-Related Music Post: All That Jazz
We’re back to professional musicians today. Very professional. In fact, this gentleman won International Jazz Artist of the Year last fall.
So what’s the football connection?
In this case, it is a man who began life in football (at San Diego State, on a full football scholarship,) but a rotator cuff injury ended his hopes of a football career.
So Gregory Porter took up singing instead.
I still have the scars. If your shoulder doesn’t stay in the socket when you run then you can’t play football.
He had always loved to sing, and said, in a 2014 article on FoxSports, this wasn’t unusual in the football environment at SDS:
“Around the football complex, I remember songs that were popular at the time, Color Me Badd, ‘I Wanna Sex You Up,’ Keith Sweat, maybe Jodeci, things like that,” Porter said. “But I wasn’t really into singing that kind of music. There were a lot of guys on the team at the time who wanted to be singers, thought they were singers. I remember a big lineman, a receiver, Merton Harris, even Marshall Faulk, that thought they were pretty good singers. But not really.”
He had grown up singing gospel in the little storefront churches in Bakersfield, CA, where his mother, an evangelist in the Church of God & Christ, preached. She was the one who encouraged him to sing the first song he wrote, at age 5, “Once Upon a Time I had a Dreamboat.”
And it was because of her dying words that he decided to risk a life as a musician:
[H]e is only performing because of the words his mother spoke as she lay dying from breast cancer.
“She was literally on her death bed,” says Porter. “She had been sent home to be with her family, connected up to the oxygen. The thing was cranked right up, but she still could not breathe.”
Still, Ruth Porter found the strength to tell her son he should try to become a professional singer – something he had never dared to consider until then. “I just couldn’t see how it could work.”
Her words changed his life. Porter did not make his first album until he was nearly 40, but his rise in the four years since has been astonishing. His latest, Liquid Spirit, won a Grammy and is still high in the charts half a year later, outselling Michael Jackson and Katy Perry.
So what’s so great about him? It’s the voice. As Rheinhard Stiehl said in a 2013 article:
One hasn’t heard a soul voice like that since Marvin Gaye, Bill Withers and Lou Rawls put together. But even that’s only half of the story, because Gregory Porter is actually not a soul singer but a jazz singer, blessed with an incredible soul voice. Porter is currently probably the best jazz singer in the world. And because he has such a gifted soul voice, he makes jazz accessible even to people that usually can’t relate to it.
Those who don’t care about such artificial genre classifications, anyhow, very quickly find an approach to the singer whose baritone will simply take your breath away, making your soul vibrate. “Jazzthing” magazine raved about the “most beautiful voice in Jazz”.
Ali Jackson, the drummer for the Wynton Marsalis Orchestra, said this of Porter:
Normally jazz singers can make or break any jam session, because usually you have to cater everything to them. Unlike most tangible things that many singers have, his sound was like no one else’s I had really heard.
But decide for yourself:
It seems to be almost a cliché for poor black football players (and, for that matter, jazz singers,) to have a difficult early life, and Porter is no exception. His father was mostly not in the picture for him and his seven siblings. As he told Jazz Times:
Everybody had some issues with their father, even if he was in the house. He may have been emotionally absent. My father was just straight-up absent. I hung out with him just a few days in my life. And it wasn’t a long time. He just didn’t seem to be completely interested in being there. Maybe he was, I don’t know.
But life wasn’t only difficult because of an absent father, as he told the author of the above-linked Independent article:
“There was tension, based on our being black in a pretty much all-white neighbourhood. When I was a young boy people would urinate into beer bottles and throw them through the windows of our home. The police came in and stood us up, checking for glass.” One terrifying night, he saw a huge cross burning just outside his bedroom window.
“The cross was six foot tall, it burned and then it fell down in the lawn,” he says. “In the morning we went out to look at it and it was good wood, jointed. There were jeans ripped up and soaked in gasoline, the wire was wrapped around it. There was craftsmanship. I was fearful, but my mother was great. She was in our faces, letting us know, ‘You are valuable, you are worthy, there is nobody above you.’”
Perhaps this at least partially accounts for what the Independent writer called “a secret sadness in each note.” In fact, after his mother’s death he couldn’t sing at all for a while:
“When she passed I was gone. I didn’t sing for a long time. Almost a year. I went to be with my brother, to get some inspiration just to get up in the morning. Then I did remember what she had said, once I was able to heal enough to deal with people looking at me.” Slowly, he began to find his voice. “I started to go to jazz jam sessions, three times a week. That was just a way of getting out of this funk of pain over losing my mother and not being an athlete any more.”
You can hear this in his lyrics, which frequently deal with what he knows:
“The things I write most passionately about are my personal experiences and about people I’ve had contact with,” Porter says. “Is that always true? No. But I can write about a broken heart because I’ve had it. I can write about adversity because I’ve had it. I can write about true love because I’ve had it.”
“[Porter] writes ingenious lyrics,” [pianist Chip] Crawford enthuses. “If he didn’t have any melody, harmony or a voice, his lyrics would stand on their own. That’s a gift, because for so many musicians, lyrics are an afterthought.”
Unlike many jazz performers, Porter doesn’t perform a lot of jazz standards but generally writes his own songs. But many of his songs have the feel of an instant standard:
He does occasionally sing standards, though, to good effect. The following is the 1944 Jule Styne/Sammy Cahn song, first sung by Frank Sinatra in the 1945 film “Anchors Aweigh.” It received an Academy Award nomination for Best Song:
I can’t think of a better way to finish than his “1 mic 1 take” version of “Don’t Lose Your Steam.”