Gregory Porter and hot jazz in Harrogate
“I’ve heard it’s a beautiful place and it’s going to be in full bloom,” he says, with a voice as smooth as silk.
It would be easy to be the cynic here. I’ve spoken to musicians in the past who have told me at length about how excited they are to be performing in Yorkshire, when you know the only reason they’re talking to you in the first place is because they need to get more bums on seats.
But Porter genuinely does seem to mean what he says. Perhaps it’s the enthusiasm with which he says it, or maybe it’s that voice again, described by one critic as “a voice to bathe in.”
He’s certainly the man of the moment right now. His modern take on gospel-infused jazz has seen him go from a relative unknown on the music club circuit to performing on prime time TV shows like Strictly Come Dancing and Later... with Jools Holland.
He was among the guests at the BBC Music Awards, where he was nominated alongside the likes of Taylor Swift, Dolly Parton and Pharrell Williams.
Last year also saw him win a Grammy award for Best Jazz Vocal Album with Liquid Spirit, his third album. His recently released “deluxe” version includes duets with Jamie Cullum and the British jazz and soul singer Laura Mvula, with whom Porter recently teamed up with at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival.
Regular listeners to BBC Radio 2 and 6 Music will no doubt already recognise Porter’s rich baritone and fans will be able to hear the man in person next weekend when he headlines the 50th Harrogate Festival.
“It’s been a slow burn but it’s become an inferno in the last few years and I’m just enjoying it all right now, it’s a privilege to be able to do what I do,” he tells me.
With his Kangol Summer Spitfire hat and suit jackets, Porter has become an instantly recognisable figure during the past 18 months. But there is more to the man than his “cat in the hat” image perhaps suggests. There is substance behind his easy charm, and I don’t just mean physically.
Porter is the seventh of eight children raised by his single parent mother, a “storefront minister” in Bakersfield in California. Music has been part of his life as far back as he can remember and he was singing by the time he was sitting on his mother’s knee. “She used to call me her ‘songster’. When I was five years old I would sing in church, but I wasn’t really interested in my voice, for me it was much more about the music. I liked what music could do to people, the way it can open you up emotionally, and I still feel that way.”
He cites people like Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway and Nat King Cole as influences as well as, perhaps more surprisingly, Bob Dylan.
He remembers his first gospel concert when he was 15. “I was a ball of nerves for the first four or five songs and I remember thinking I just have to get through it, which every musician goes through,” he says.
“I was sick with nerves before the show. My mum was charging five dollars to people to come and see me perform. I thought 50 cents was ok, but five dollars? Really? But she just had so much confidence in me.”
Talking to Porter, you quickly realise the important role his mother has played in his life. Even now, 20 years after she died, she still inspires him.
“She was a very grounded person who always tried to keep my feet on the ground and that’s where they are today… in the penthouse suite of a five star hotel,” he says, laughing. “I am joking by the way,” he adds quickly.
His mother looms large in his conversation and even though she’s no longer here she is never far away from his thoughts and continues to be an inspiration. “Her teachings and her energy is in Liquid Spirit on songs like When Love Was King, her presence is still in my music.
“It’s not just her Bible teachings, it’s her life experiences. I’m really just shaving off her life experiences in my songs. So if people like my music and words then it’s really just what my mother gave me.”
Despite his deep affection for his mother growing up in a single parent family wasn’t always easy. When we think of California we perhaps conjure images of swanky apartments in Santa Monica and sun-kissed beaches adorned with beautiful people. But while Bakersfield might have had the hot Californian climate, for Porter’s family it wasn’t like living the American Dream. “It was an experience,” he says diplomatically.
The Ku Klux Klan were active in the city and as a youngster Gregory and his brothers regularly ran a gauntlet of abuse. They encountered what he politely calls “racial bias” and “discrimination”.
“A cross was burned in our front yard and there was a lot of name calling.
“My brother was walking home from work one time and got shot in the back by a group of racists.”
Such incidents are horrific, but growing up Porter had no shortage of friends as well as his mother’s fortitude. “She was very strong. We were brought up to believe that we were beneath no one.” It’s an attitude he maintains to this day. “I don’t elevate myself above anyone, but I’m not beneath them either.”
The issue of racism has raised its ugly head again in the US, most recently in the wake of the murder of nine people who were shot dead in a church in South Carolina. Despite such harrowing stories and the simmering racial tension experienced in neighbourhoods across the country, he still believes in his homeland. “America is a great country that has pockets of injustice and discrimination,” he says. “A lot has changed, my mother had a much more difficult time than I did.”
But he does believe that it’s easy to become complacent about racial equality. “The mistakes of the past are repeated if lessons aren’t learned. The ideas of justice and equality have to be learned by each generation if you’re going to maintain that thing we call freedom.”
At 43, Porter speaks with a maturity and eloquence that isn’t necessarily associated with singers and performers. It perhaps reflects his upbringing and the fact he’s had to graft hard to achieve what he has.
“I didn’t really have a big break as such, there was a lot of starts and stops.” Getting his first record deal was a big step because it gave him confidence. “Getting the record deal made me think ‘ok, maybe I can make a career out of this?’ and then I got a Grammy nomination and you think ‘maybe this career can last.’ It’s one step at a time.”
Porter is now signed up with the revered Blue Note Records label and rubbing shoulders with some of music’s superstars. In recent years he’s been praised by the likes of Stevie Wonder and the late Gil Scott Heron. “I was shocked when I heard them mention me because I didn’t think they knew about me or my music.”
He still finds it slightly surreal being at an awards ceremony and sharing the same space with the likes of Sir Paul McCartney and Beyonce. But aside from the fame and hob-knobbing with celebrities, for Porter it’s all about the music.
“Do I enjoy the TV shows and newspaper interviews? Abso-damn-lutely, but what I really love and what sustains it all the music. Everything else is a by-product of that,” he says. “Whenever I go to parties I ask people what they do, what do they love. And for some people it might be poetry or cooking, my passion just happens to be music. For me it’s just as important as any other art form, it’s a way of talking about life and telling stories – it’s about us as human beings.”
Gregory Porter headlines for Harrogate International Festivals on Saturday, July 11, at the Harrogate International Centre’s main auditorium. For tickets go to: www.harrogateinternationalfestivals.com or call the Box Office on 01423 562 303.
Gregory Porter’s latest album, Liquid Spirit, is out now.