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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."

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.

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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