Obituary: Art Porter

The jazz saxophonist Art Porter came from a musical family. His father, Art Porter Snr, was a professional pianist who led his own band, worked with the John Stubblefield band and, for a time, accompanied the singer Carmen McRae. Porter junior began playing saxophone at 15, initially in his father's band in Little Rock, Arkansas. His prodigal talents led him into some misfortune, however, and he was arrested and charged for working under age in a night club. Fortunately for him, the case caught the attention of the state attorney general, Bill Clinton, and, thanks to his involvement, the legislature changed the law, allowing youngsters to work in such establishments, if chaperoned by a legal guardian. The Act became known as the "Art Porter Bill".

Porter was born in 1961 and studied at the Berklee School of Music and at the Virginia Commonwealth University. He became a protege of the pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis and, after moving to Chicago in the mid-Eighties, undertook further studies with the tenor saxophonist Von Freeman.

The less academic side of his career was conducted at a more empirical level. He worked in the widely contrasting musical environments provided by Jack McDuff's earthy, organ-led combo and the exotic Pharaoh Sanders unit as it progressed the John Coltrane message.

Porter's initial influence had been Charlie Parker and his bebop-based style proved a useful tool in most of the situations in which he found himself. His interest in Coltrane had grown during his involvement with Sanders but he had avoided the fierce extremes into which this might have led him. He was a believer in communication and he wanted his music to have a wider audience. He shunned the repertory, hard bop of the neo-classical jazz movement and was happy to introduce funkier, rhythmic ingredients into his well-heated musical pot.

On the tour circuit in the Nineties, he demonstrated his penetrating sound and an improvisational style that was more concerned with modest variation than in-depth musical analysis. The success of this policy was endorsed by an audience response that suggested that he was correct in calling most heavily on his experience with the organ groups and on his own liking for R&B.

At the time of his death, Porter could have been in Europe. A trip, including a week at Ronnie Scott's Club in London, had been proposed but his record company had influenced him to go to Bangkok for the 1996 Thailand International Jazz Festival. He was drowned in an accident when his boat capsized on a reservoir in western Thailand.

Barry McRae

Art Porter, saxophonist: born 1961; married (two sons); died Kratha Taek, Thailand 23 November 1996.

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