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.