Robert Porter: Reflections of A Public Servant
“Robert has always served this community with his music and with his tireless efforts representing those who lacked a vehicle to acquire the basic necessities of life. He’s bringing all these great old players out of the woodwork with his jam sessions. But as is the case for all of us (resident musicians) we often can’t get sufficient gigs in our own area or receive the attention or recognition our efforts deserve.” pianist/educator Ed Kelly.
Instead of being recognized for his good works Robert Porter is now having his low income residence status reviewed because it is assumed that his Sunday night jam sessions at the Birdcage which have become the lifeblood of some stellar musicians is making him too wealthy. But this is not a sad story. Robert Porter is not a sad cat. He reminds me a little of Joe Frazier. No matter what you throw at him he keeps on coming, bobbing and weaving till he finds a way inside so he can start working on his adversary. It seems he was born into both a life of music and hard times.
“ My mother ran a boarding house in Houston. All the musicians like Cab Calloway, Chick Webb and members of Basie’s band used to stay there when they came to town. So I grew up listening to all that beautiful music, blues and jazz. There was no separation between blues and jazz at that time that came later. The division was created by the record companies as a marketing ploy so they could sell more records. You’d even find players like Charlie Parker backing up blues cats. (Later on I befriended Jimmy Hendrix and whenever we’d play at the coffee gallery near Golden Gate Park I’d invite him in to play bebop. He’d shine me on and start playing this outrageous blues guitar. People would start mobbing him. He knew all about breaking down barriers.)
As a boy I played in Henry Franklin’s band (father of Henry Franklin Jr. the famous Los Angeles bassist). We traveled through Sugarland, Richmond and played in the Rice Hotel in Houston. White women used to hang all over his piano when he played, it wasn’t sexual the music just drew them. They ran us out of the Hotel; Houston was really racist at the time. Cab Calloway got run out of Houston for the same thing. They used to put a rope down the middle of the auditorium. One side for white and one side for black. Well once the music started the white audience said F*** It and crossed right over. That and the fact there would be white women grabbing for pieces of his clothes as he made his way out got him run out of town. They were afraid of the influence he was exerting over the style of peoples dress, the way they talked, even the way they walked.”
Robert was forced to make his own exodus a few years later. After serving his country and receiving a taste of the liberal social attitudes in Munich, he returned home to Houston. Home where there still was a law on the books to prevent reckless eyeballing of whites by blacks. His first altercation was precipitated by some unkind comments directed his way as he tried to cash his paycheck while in the company of two white German women. Then he made the mistake of crossing the Mason-Dixon line on a bus.
“The first seat I saw was next to a rather overweight white gentleman. When I asked him politely to move he didn’t budge. Being young and just having fought a war I tried to push by him. He pushed me so I hit him. The reaction was immediate. The old ladies in the back screamed while some other passengers held open the door so I could make my escape, which included jumping over a number of fences. There were also great acts of kindness. Like when two white guys tried to run me off the shoulder of the road. Their car flipped over and before the dust cleared a white truck driver who had witnessed the accident pulled over and offered me a ride. He said, “Get in the cab! If those guys spot you they’ll hang you.” Picking up a black and giving him a ride in the cab was against all kinds of policies.”
Robert landed in Oakland in the late forties and quickly inserted himself into the jazz scene. Looking younger than his years he was able to find work playing with the various high school bands which formed around the local recreation centers such as Defemery and San Pablo parks. The most popular bands would be hired to play dances. A program whose time may now have come again for the youth of Oakland.
“Late at night we’d go down to the strip on seventh street and hang out at the It Club and listen to the Mad Genius who used to play the hell out of the piano. Lionel Hampton who used to play at the Tandy Theater would drop by with 1 or 2 of his players and jam with the Mad Genius. T Bone Walker would be at the Swing Club while Slim Jenkins would be playing over at the Hideaway. It was Slim who really put Oakland on the map with his recording of The S.K. Blues and 7th Street Boogie. Charlie Parker and Dizzy sat in with Slim and the other blues musicians. Despite the fact San Francisco had the reputation, as a crossroads with all sorts of roadside attractions Oakland was the place. The performers were always on this side of the bay or they would stop in transit. The war and the shipyards meant there was a lot of work to go around. Because of that Richmond had an entire scene of it’s own. One of my big moments came when Billy Eckstine came to town with the great Art Blakey on drums. I was going to Candell’s Conservatory with Pointy Poindexter and Smiley Winters. We already knew Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon who used to stay up here, but Billy’s band with Gene Ammons was something else. Smiley and a bunch of us went down and Smiley sat in with the band. That was really something to see one of our guys with someone like that, it suggested that the possibilities were limitless.
My first regular gig was with Julius Jaquette, Illinois Jaquette’s brother. I came to the gig by way of my wife Lucella Thomas who used to sing and play with him. I really thought I could play. I was wearing a goatee and a beret just like Dizzy. One night he asked me if I could play Body and Soul. After eight bars he stopped the band, gave me fifty dollars and told me to sit down. That was the most shocking thing that aver happened to me. I couldn’t play the melody. I wasn’t relating to the changes, I was playing on pure emotion. To make things worse I was kicked out of a band my girl was in. And being a young cat I was very leery about leaving here to spend her nights with a bunch of older musicians. So I went home and practiced non-stop for eight months till I was ready.”
Robert’s next big chance came at Bop City, which was one of the premiere clubs at the time. It was there he met a young player who though not a great player showed a special talent for arranging for Lionel Hampton’s band. After Robert sat in for a set with Lionel Hampton’s band. Quincy Jones came over and said, “You remind me of Idris Suliman”.
“I told him thanks, but I don’t know who that is. He invited me to tour with the band even though I felt I couldn’t read well enough. Having just married my wife entered into the decision. She nixed the idea and told me to finish my college degree. There were leaving the next morning and I waited till the last minute to reluctantly inform Quincy of my decision not to make the gig. Though it was a choice I had to make. It’s a decision that haunts me to this day. There were still important opportunities to play with people like Budd Johnson and Charlie Parker. Parker would come over this poet’s house and jam with us students. Then when he felt the music wasn’t going anywhere he’d get, up brush himself off and leave. Barry Harris used to take me up into his room and write out parts for me. He’d say play this and you’ll sound like “Fat Girl”(Fats Navarro). Next week you’d hear this or another one of his licks on the radio, everybody was taking stuff off his arrangements. Besides forming my own quartet, which featured Addison farmer, Art’s brother. I had a chance to jam at the Bar None on 32nd and Hollis with people like altoist Leo Wright, Willie Pryor, C.C.Pinkston and the great Frank Haynes who paved the way for people like Vince Wallace.”
His association with another band significantly furthered Robert’s education. The blues-jazz ensemble featured a female sax player who sounded like Sonny Rollins and a young blues guitarist who would play a few numbers every set by the name of B.B. King.
“On the morning I was to be payed after playing with the band for a few nights in Houston, Texas. I found that the band had left Texas and me without paying up. Stranded and broke I was much less starry eyed after that. It’s an experience I would recommend to any youngster who would do anything to go out on the road with real working band.”
Robert found a way to control his personal and professional life by forming his own band. They occupied the bandstand at the Pallladium in Oakland for three straight years. “Writing and arranging has always been one of my major loves. And having a steady band and a place to play… especially a place like the Palladium. It featured young Richard Williams on first trumpet who we nicknamed notes because he pour this stream of notes out of his trumpet while still attending to the changes.” Robert Porter was also fortunate to form an association with a young trumpeter who had just arrived in Oakland bereft of his horn and with just one change of clothes.
“Miles and I formed a bond partly because of our age. We were both around twenty-three. He wasn’t really wholesome looking because of his habit; most people are unaware of the kind of dues he paid. But still it got to be a real positive association. I was real glad to see him 6 years later when he came in town to the Jazz Workshop. By that time he had filled out and really come into his own. He wasn’t as big as Dizzy but then he wasn’t as flamboyant as Dizzy. He did however change the course of a few lives and jazz as a whole when change was sorely needed.”
And change was what it was all about for Robert Porter in the Sixties. A member of the Black Panther Party, he worked from within the Public Health Department in implementing social programs that were developed by different “indigenous” community groups. In essence he found ways to get them funded, access to health care and helped establish minorities in positions where they had power to effect changes in Ronald Reagan’s Public Health Program. At the same time the jazz scene was undergoing a profound change. Many of the clubs were closing down either from increased scrutiny by the authorities (IRS etc.), increased rents or a combination of both. Clubs like the Haight Level, Jacks even one man operations like the jazz club on San Pablo and 51st run by one of the best local musicians, who would play and then bartend. When the Fillmore suddenly changed hands the crowds and the bands had little to do with blues and jazz. Whether there was a purposeful freezing out of local jazz musicians is another story to be told at another time. The music dictated a change in the kind and size of the crowd. The music of Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler and other members of the Advant Garde was not danceable.
“There was no easy beat people could groove to. Even other musicians would describe Ornette’s music as dogs barking. So the guys went where the women did and that for the most part was somewhere else. I used to go to record parties that featured Eric Dolphy as the D.J. (He always played BeBop at the parties even though he was in the forefront of the new sound). I ran into Ornette by accident while he was pushing his car to a gas station. He sent some music on a postcard after I expressed interest in what he was doing. I started my own avant-garde band called the Dialectical Sound Ensemble. We preceded The Chicago Art Ensemble with the paint and “theater”. We’d work off three or four chords and then start blowing. Though we had fine players like Butch Morris in our group I believe it really set me back musically. I had to due a lot of shedding before I could play Bebop right again. I think it was that way for a great portion of those players. Only in Ornette’s and later John Coltrane’s music could I see the connection to Bebop and New Orleans. It was Miles who turned the scene around. He snapped his neck into the wind and started all that beautiful swinging stuff with Coltrane, Chambers and Adderly.”
Robert Porter has set himself against the wind and continues to bring about and play changes. Though he has seen little profit and few notices he does on occasion see some rewards. “When word gets back to me that former band members like Addison Farmer told Art I was someone he had to listen to. Or when the word that Richard Williams thought that I was one of the best horn players he ever saw filters all the way from New York. I don’t feel my accomplishments went unnoticed.”