(The Root) — When was the last time the culture produced a great black male jazz singer? To be sure, there is no shortage of contemporary black female jazz vocalists — Dianne Reeves, Cassandra Wilson and Lizz Wright, to name just a few — all at the peak (or close to, in Wright's case) of their artistry. I'm also aware that in some coffee house or around-the-way basement club there is a dude who would make us all forget who Billy Eckstine or Jon Hendricks was. No, this question is less about talent and more about the lack of visible incentive in the larger commercial world — and frankly, black cultural spaces — for young African-American men to imagine themselves as vocal caretakers of a music that folks often decry as dead.
For many young black male singers, contemporary gospel music and R&B seem the most likely road to fame and reward; we only need to scan series like The Voice, American Idol or even BET's Sunday Best to see how that plays out. Generations ago, when jazz had a presence in still largely segregated and mixed-class black communities, not only was the music more accessible to African-American youth; it was seen as a viable vocation. For many young black males, jazz artists also represented examples of how they could be men in the world. Artists like Miles Davis (with his Hickey Freeman suits), Nat King Cole (in his jazz trio days), Lester Young, Duke Ellington and Eckstine were the epitome of black style — cutting a figure, as art historian Richard Powell might describe it.
It has been at least two generations since jazz has played such a vibrant cultural role in African-American communities. Many working musicians are more likely to have been produced in conservatories than in late-night sessions at the storefront club in the 'hood (or in the black church). It's at least a generation since we've seen successful black male artists who would easily identify as jazz singers (Kevin Mahogany comes to mind). Though Bobby McFerrin achieved pop fame as a one-hit wonder with the quirky "Don't Worry, Be Happy" (1988), inspiring Chuck D's classic retort: "Damn if I sing it, you can smack me right here," there were three solid jazz albums in his rearview. The talented Will Downing — the working man's Luther Vandross — has had to straddle the worlds of R&B and "smooth jazz" (not making any judgments here). Hell, even the late Gil Scott-Heron fancied himself a jazz singer in the early stages of his career — just take a listen to the classic "Lady Day and Coltrane."
Given the lack of visibility, the difficulty of being heard on mainstream black radio (not the case when I was growing up listening to Frankie Crocker in the 1970s) and the lack of venues that young fans might find affordable or feel welcome (real talk here), I'm sure the idea of being a jazz singer might seem like career suicide for a young black male singer with such an inclination.
This is exactly the point that Gregory Porter makes on the track "Musical Genocide," one of the standout songs on his stellar new recording Liquid Spirit (Blue Note). Addressing naysayers, who might ask why he sings this music, he sings emphatically, "I do not agree … I will not commit/nor will I submit to musical genocide," finding his own grounding, not in the whims of marketplace, but in the music itself. Liquid Spirit is a love song to this music, trafficking in the sustenance of the blues, soul (not R&B) and traditional gospel traditions, while remaining rooted in a jazz aesthetic. Porter's dexterity within these genres is what perhaps distinguishes him from some of his peers like Dwight Trible and Jose James, who have both more than dabbled in hip-hop-styled production and, in the case of Trible, elements of the jazz avant-garde. Porter is no stranger to that world either, guesting with Macy Gray on David Murray's recent Be My Monster Love.
Like most of Porter's recordings, Liquid Spirit is marked by an element of whimsy that, despite the lumberjack cap he wears almost as a prop, comes off as sincere. In this regard Porter's best musical moments recall Johnny Hartman's sublime collaboration with John Coltrane (still an overlooked gem) or the Bobby Scott charts that Marvin Gaye first recorded in the late 1960s, which eventually became the posthumously released Vulnerable. In terms of storytelling, Porter's music is apt to remind of Arthur Prysock's interpretation of Walter Benton's poetry on This Is My Beloved. Porter voice is sturdy and consistent, conjuring one of those Lowenbrau commercials that bore Prysock's voice in the late 1970s ("Here's to good friends…") or drummer-vocalist Grady Tate, who has trained generations of musicians at Howard University.
Porter still struggles a bit in his musical compositions; there is a feeling of déjà vu, particularly on some of Porter's ballads, giving the feeling that you're listening to Liquid Spirit, Be Good (2012) and Water (2010) on a random shuffle. That Porter can sing anything rescues many of the more formulaic compositions.
The new recording is Porter's first for the legendary Blue Note label. Though there are no efforts like the stunning "Be Good (Lion's Song)" — the opening track "No Love Dying" comes close — and given the likely pressures to conform for a major jazz label (really an oxymoron), Liquid Spirit is surprisingly both more cohesive and daring than its predecessor. The one clear concession seems to be Porter's cover of Dobie Gray's "The In Crowd" — no doubt being bumped at your local hipster hang-out as I write this — and arguably the one track to be skipped on the new outing.
As successful as Porter has been the past few years, there's nothing in his body of work or his astute marketing that is likely to turn back the clock on the role of the black male jazz vocalist. Even the inevitable collaborations with label mate Robert Glasper (to jazz and hip-hop what the late Donald Byrd was to jazz and funk) will not likely return that train to the station, though Glasper's not-often-enough collaborations with Bilal, who would have been at home with the jazz avant-garde of the black arts era, offer, perhaps, another lane.
For now we can enjoy the music of a brilliant singer and even more thoughtful lyricist, who is both unafraid and unashamed to carry the bloodstained banner for the country's true classical form.
Editor's note: In an earlier version of this article, the song "Musical Genocide" was mistakenly called "Musical Suicide."
Mark Anthony Neal is the author of several books, including the recent Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities and the host of the weekly video webcast Left of Black. He is professor of African and African-American Studies at Duke University and a fellow at the HipHop Archive and Research Institute at Hutchins Center for Research in African and African-American Studies at Harvard University.
Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University and a fellow at the Hiphop Archive and Research Institute at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is the author of several books, including Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities. Follow him on Twitter.