From Lester Young’s porkpie to Thelonious Monk’s homburg to Dr. Lonnie Smith’s turban, jazz artists have long been recognized by their iconic headwear. Add to their number Brooklyn-based vocalist Gregory Porter, who will perform Friday night at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center.
The 41-year-old singer, who will kick off the second Miami Nice Jazz Festival, is increasingly identified by his trademark topper, a balaclava ski cap crowned by a soft Kangol hat.
Of course, Porter also receives attention for his smoky bearhug of a voice and poignant, poetic songs that place him on a continuum with Nat "King" Cole, Oscar Brown Jr. and Bill Withers. But wherever he goes, fans are curious about his chapeau.
"It’s an afterthought, in a way, but this is how I rock it," says the California native, speaking by phone from the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood he’s called home for nearly a decade. "… This is my hat, this is my thing. And it’s instantly identifiable. I was at a coffee shop this morning, and there were some tourists from France who were like, ‘Gregory Porter? Nobody else wears that hat!’ "
Framed by his distinctive headgear, Porter’s genial, bearded mug has graced the covers of three excellent recordings. The 2010, Grammy-nominated Water and its follow-up, last year’s Be Good, were released on the independent Motéma label. Liquid Spirit, his first for the venerable Blue Note imprint, dropped in September.
Once again, the singer draws on influences from the church and the blues, soul and R&B on which he was raised. But he also maintains an essential jazz aesthetic, evident in his phrasing and his use of mainly acoustic instrumentation.
While horn choruses and funky grooves on Liquid Spirit echo classic Blue Note sessions, Porter didn’t tailor his content, with one notable exception — a redo of Ramsey Lewis’ 1965 hit The ‘In’ Crowd.
He was also asking himself: "Am I now part of the ‘in’ crowd?" Audiences worldwide may enthusiastically wave him in, but jazz traditionalists are not always quick to grant admission. Porter’s not sweating it.
"When I’m writing songs, I’m really just inside of the melody and the words, the expressions," he says. "If it fits jazz, cool. If it doesn’t, that’s cool, too. I’m ’a just do it anyway."
The seventh of eight children raised by a single mother in Los Angeles and Bakersfield, Porter cut his teeth on his mom’s gospel and jazz records.
Mom, a minister, laid down the law on Saturdays: Porter and his siblings couldn’t watch Soul Train on TV until the house was cleaned. So they switched on the radio and got busy. To this day, certain songs vividly return him to that place and time. "I’ll hear a Donny Hathaway or a Curtis Mayfield song, and the scent of pine comes to my nose," he says.
Porter’s musical gifts were nurtured by a series of mentors and champions in his college years. Having received an athletic scholarship to San Diego State, he suffered a shoulder injury that ended his football career.
Later, sitting in at area jazz clubs, the singer caught the ears of musicians and educators Kamau Kenyatta and George Lewis, who furthered his training in and out of the classroom. During a recording-session break, jazz flutist Hubert Laws heard Porter sing Smile and insisted he perform the standard on his 1998 album, Hubert Laws Remembers the Unforgettable Nat "King" Cole.
Laws’ sister then recommended Porter for a part in the musical revue It Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues, which took him to Broadway.
In 2004, Porter settled in Brooklyn and built up followings at St. Nick’s Pub in Harlem and Smoke on the Upper West Side. Once again, he impressed the cognoscenti, including Motéma label chief Jana Herzen, who signed him to a contract. Her faith was rewarded when Porter received a Best Jazz Vocal Album Grammy nod for Water. He received another for Be Good’s Real Good Hands, this time in the Best Traditional R&B Performance category.
Despite his linebacker’s build, Porter can caress a lyric with utmost tenderness. The lovely jazz waltz Water Under Bridges and the late-night soul-pop Hey Laura, both from Liquid Spirit, express universal, heart-on-sleeve sentiments. But Porter also comes out swinging on the album’s title track, a gospel foot-stomper, and Musical Genocide, a tense, modern soul vamp.
Whether he’s perceived as a jazz singer or as a hyphenated hybrid, Porter never forgets where he comes from. Each of his albums has included a couple of jazz standards, and the bluesy voices of the transplanted Southerners who testified in his mom’s church inform his artistry.
Porter’s organic blend of idioms continues to find receptive audiences, from Sussex, England, where he played this summer’s Love Supreme Fest, to the Hollywood Bowl, where he performed at the Playboy Jazz Fest. He’s even connected with young fans in Russia, some of whom showed up for his concert wearing their own Gregory Porter hat.
"That was very cool," he says with a chuckle. "I was like, ‘Hey, OK, I’m at home here.’ "