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Hard Bop

Jazz legend Rick Porter has beaten more than his drum kit. He's also beaten addiction.

The scene was New York City in the mid-'50s at the legendary Birdland. A twentysomething drummer by the name of Rick Porter was about to experience a baptism by fire as the new member of the Bud Powell Trio. An influential pianist who was instrumental in the development of bebop piano, but who also suffered mental disorders, Powell walked up to the bandstand and started playing "Salt Peanuts" without calling it out to the band. After finishing the intro, Powell walked over to the bar and ordered a drink, leaving Porter and bassist John Orr to carry the show. Confused, Porter looked over to Orr, who told Porter, "You got it." For the next several minutes, Porter performed a drum solo, while Powell stood at the bar with his back to the bandstand.

"He was checking me out, to see if I could handle it," Porter says. "It was a breakneck tempo, which was easier to play than if it had been slow, because all I had to do was keep some sound going, some accents and stuff. But he apparently was satisfied, so he came up on the stand and played."

No "apparently" about it. For the next 16 months Porter toured with Powell, eventually landing in Europe, where the pianist was something of a celebrity. When Powell took ill, Porter found another gig with vocalist Blossom Dearie, then one with trumpeter Chet Baker. When Porter got back to the States, he hitched up with trumpeter Maynard Ferguson, and then he… well, you get the idea. The list goes on and on. During his 50-plus-year career, Rick Porter usually has been right in the thick of it, in New York City, playing with the most important figures in jazz, at the time the music was undergoing its most dramatic stylistic shifts.

Rick Porter's memo to young jazz cats: Swing's the thing.
Deron Neblett
Rick Porter's memo to young jazz cats: Swing's the thing.

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Houston has few direct links to NYC's classic scene. Harry Sheppard and G.T. Hogan are two. The 70-year-old Porter, a dapper gentleman who looks younger than many men 20 years his junior, is another. "He comes from a very important time in jazz, the period I call hard bop, that transitional period between bop and the big changes that occurred during the '60s," says trumpeter Dennis Dotson. "The players of his time looked both forward and backward. I always enjoyed that music, and it's great to play with someone who plays it so authentically."

Erin Wright, a thirtysomething bassist and member of Porter's Music Unlimited Ensemble, agrees: "I have played with many great players who are of my generation and who have focused their playing style on the way these guys played back then, but it is never quite the same. Rick's drumming has the undeniable flavor of a classic New York bebop drummer."


Born in the West Indies, Rick Porter was raised in New York City. His mother was a singer who performed in bands led by Benny Carter, Billy Eckstine, Cab Calloway and Porter's father. Porter's formal music studies began in 1944, when he entered the High School of Music and Art. "It had been my intention and my family's intention for me to have a career singing," he says. "But I had a very small capacity with my voice." His teachers recommended he switch to an instrument. So began Porter's focus on percussion.

Porter started performing for others as an adolescent. Between shoeshine customers, he entertained passersby on the Boardwalk by tap dancing or knocking out rhythms with his drumsticks, while his friend Benny Harris played cornet. He also jammed with neighborhood kids by the names of Sonny Rollins, Kenny Drew and Jackie McLean. Porter's first break came when saxophonist Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson asked Porter to join him for a summer tour. He was 15 years old.

Around this time Porter found a teacher in the form of Kenny Clarke, an influential drummer with a light touch. Clarke's tendency to accent unusual beats earned him the nickname Klook. "I'd show up every Saturday morning for drum lessons," Porter recalls. "I'd wake 'em up. It got so that Carmen [McRae, Clarke's wife] would just show me where the cereal was and told me to put the coffee on, and [she'd] go back up and get in bed. I'd mess around until Klook came down. Klook was … the first cat who gave me gigs with the real cats."

Porter put his music career on hold in 1947 when he joined the army. After receiving a medical discharge in 1952, he returned to New York, hit the club scene and studied social science at City College as well as composition and percussion at Juilliard. During the '50s Porter jammed with many legends, including Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Horace Silver, and was good friends with fellow drummers Art Blakey and Art Taylor. It wasn't long before Porter -- one of the few drummers who could read music well -- knew he could keep up.

"What marked your coming of age in New York, when I was coming up, was how well you swung," Porter says. "Whatever happened, we swung. There's a joyousness that was communicated that is too often absent in music. The youngsters [today] tend to be really self-involved. So there is intellectual stimulation. They do interesting things, but you can't remember any of it when it's over. And in the middle of it, nobody swings. That's missing. [When] we came of age, you might get a gig one time, but until you learned how to swing, you didn't get called back."

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