Jazz is an art form as rich in history as it is contemporary. Understandably, being a popular genre for over a century has led to many challenges. In today’s diverse musical landscape, finding its place has led jazz to adopt new sounds, themes and instrumentation.
Gregory Porter, one of the biggest names in contemporary jazz, knows this well. Although the Grammy-winning musician incorporates a wide range of styles into his music, this is not a calculated scheme. Instead, it is a genuine expression of his musical background. “When you think of jazz, all of it stands on something else,” says Porter. “I was getting soul, R&B, blues; definitely gospel. That’s the way music came to me – I didn’t separate it into genres. You mix in some of the old with the new; I think that’s what jazz is. When I make my music, it has to be uniquely me.”
For Porter, the key to success is telling personal stories that are relevant to the audience. “I often find myself in other people’s life trials, which says to me that the personal is universal. I tell my story and I tell other people’s stories in my music.”
Current issues often appear in music of all genres, and for good reason – they resonate with listeners. Gregory Porter uses "Fan the Flames" off his latest album as an example of this. It draws inspiration from various political protests and movements across the United States and abroad. “’Stand up on your seat with your dirty feet, raise your fist in the air but be sweet,’ is an homage to nonviolent protest. I look at the environment, and what moves me emotionally is what I tend to write about.”
The album's title track, "Take Me to the Alley", is chiefly inspired by his mother. She gave her time in storefront churches, helping individuals deal with anything from alcoholism to homelessness.
Gregory Porter’s 2013 release Liquid Spirit not only earned him a Grammy Award, it has also been dubbed the most streamed jazz album of all time. In the world of modern music, streaming is a polarizing issue. As Porter sees it, it’s neither totally good nor bad. “At one point it helps you to get your name out there, but then at a certain point it probably starts to hurt you,” he says. If his sold-out live shows are any indication, it has certainly helped him. “For me at the moment, I’m cool with it.”
Does jazz still have a future? If you ask Gregory Porter: without question. “Every generation says the death of jazz is near, but that’s not true. Jazz will be fine, but along with the tradition of the music, we do have to tell a new story. We do have to be fearless about putting our musical charisma and our DNA into the music. The music has to have personalities and voices that are connected to a human being.”
Often, Porter is asked how it feels to be a “saviour” of jazz. “That doesn’t make any sense. It was here before me, it’ll be here after me. Jazz saved me – I didn’t save jazz, jazz saved me. I found my voice in the music, and it feels good to serve it in my way.”
Gregory Porter plays at Nathan Phillips Square on June 28th.
Watch video from this interview on YouTube.