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Hard Bop

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

As a drummer, Porter is a member of the Clarke school. He is energetic but sophisticated and subtle. He lays down the time but is never overpowering. Porter says his style is partially a by-product of accompanying singers for so many years, including Dearie, McRae, Etta Jones and Terri Thorton. "He is a very musical player who plays with great taste and no BS," says Dotson. "He's a fine soloist, too. He can solo over long forms and play the form. Of course, a drummer is supposed to be able to do that, but it's amazing how many otherwise good players can't."

"I approach the drums as another musical instrument," Porter says. "I try to play the music. One thing cats always say is that when I'm playing solos, they say, 'Man, I can hear the changes.' That is what I strive for. I don't strive for 'Well, I'm going to take a drum solo, and I'm going to show you [what I can do].' "

Porter also has developed heavyweight composing skills. In 1954 he started working for pianist Mary Lou Williams, who introduced him to famed composer Tadd Dameron. Both Williams and Dameron became Porter's writing mentors, and it wasn't long before Porter's writing and arranging skills were in demand by the likes of Frank Foster and Slide Hampton. He even sold the song "Teaneck" to Nat Adderley.

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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Porter's career has been filled with the ups and downs that characterize the jazz life. Not only has he played and recorded with some of the best, but in 1967 he became Columbia University's first jazz artist in residence. However, early in his career, substance abuse and prison terms occasionally kept him off the scene, and in 1969 Porter's daughter died at the age of 21. His wife committed suicide less than a year later. "At the time, I was not using," Porter says. "I had been in recovery. Not successfully in recovery, apparently, but I hadn't used it in 11 years. The residual effects of that on my emotional makeup were what led me to be vulnerable enough to the suggestion of using again."

Porter stayed clean for a while. He moved to Houston in 1976 -- not to play jazz, but to work as a counselor. He quickly reverted back to his drum kit when guitarist Kenny Burrell asked Porter to go on tour. He also reverted back to substance abuse, which this time led to a seven-year prison term. Porter used the time in prison to focus on composing. He sent his compositions to pianist Bob Henschen, who acted as something of a repository.

Clean for years now, Porter was released from prison three years ago. When he got out, he was determined to make not just personal changes but musical ones. "I said, 'Well, shit, I'm an old over-the-hill bebop drummer,' " Porter says. " 'Most of the stuff has passed me by. I'm not in New York anymore. I'm in Houston, which is not exactly the jazz capital of the world. The remainder of the time that I spend playing, I'm going to spend at least half of it playing my compositions.' "

True to his word, Porter, with more than 300 of his own compositions to call on, has put most of his energies into writing and leading his own groups, including the Music Unlimited Ensemble. "As a band, we have something unique and original to offer," says Wright of MUE. "Few bands play exclusively original material; most stick to the same set of old standards that have been played for years."

Last year Porter premiered The Haitian Suite, a multifaceted composition in three movements that depicts the liberation of Haiti. The work is one of the most ambitious projects to come out of a Houston jazz musician in some time. Yet Porter doesn't focus exclusively on his own material. He created a Kenny Dorham retrospective -- a musical and panel-forum tribute to the late Texas trumpeter and longtime friend. The retrospective premiered at Texas Southern University last spring. Famed pianist and educator Billy Taylor has expressed interest in bringing the retrospective to New York City and Washington, D.C. When he's not playing or composing, Porter teaches. At 70, he is sharing his life's lessons, both musical and personal.

"I cannot tell you how often I have thanked God for the musical experiences that I had, because they all taught me," Porter says. "I had a good musical foundation, [and] I learned my craft playing with the finest musicians in the world. I've been very lucky to play with some of the finest cats there were. I really thank my lucky stars."

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