Obituary: Art Porter 1961-1996

Arthur Lee Porter, Jr. perished in a tragic boating accident in Thailand on Saturday evening, November 23, 1996. Porter and four others were floating on the River Kwae when their raft sprang a leak. Porter, a boatman, and a married couple who were music teachers in Bangkok all drowned. The only survivor was Alan Burrows, a guitar player in Porter’s band. Porter and the band had just played at the Golden Jubilee Jazz Festival in Bangkok and were on their way to the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lampur, as part of the Thailand International Jazz Festival 96.

Art PorterAlthough Art is best known for his saxophone playing, he originally played the drums in his father’s jazz trio at age 9. Growing up in the Porter household in Little Rock, Arkansas, he was exposed to the sounds of Coltrane, Bird, and Gene Ammons. He was soon barred from playing with the trio by the state’s Beverage Control Board. However, then state Attorney General Bill Clinton pushed a law through allowing underage performers to work if a parent or guardian acts in a performing/supervisory capacity. The law is commonly known today at the “Art Porter Bill.” At the age of 15, Art was ready to step up and take center stage. After deciding he no longer wanted to serve as a support player, the saxophone “just became more natural to me.” The following year, young Porter attended the Berklee College of Music for a semester. He later received a scholarship to Northeastern Illinois University, where he played in local bands, including Von Freeman’s, every week. After receiving his degree in music education, Art began his journey as a professional musician, playing with Jack McDuff, Pharoah Sanders, Gene Chandler, and serving as musical director for the vocal r&b group After 7. On the road, Art developed a solid following and was soon signed with Verve/Polygram. His debut solo album, Pocket City, was released on Verve Forecast in 1992. Although he was primarily exposed to traditional jazz in his youth, Pocket City was an album definitely in the contemporary jazz vein. “I grew up on the standards,” he said in 1992, “but I didn’t grow up to be a jazz purist. In high school I got into a new wave kind of thing, and I’ve always liked funk. So when I got my own band, the challenge was to put all these things together. I wanted to do something that would be considered commercial and still have some integrity to the music.” The same style was evident on his three releases following: Straight to the Point, Undercover, and Lay Your Hands On Me (all on Verve Forecast).

David Bendett was the manager for Art’s band during the Southeast Asian tour. Bendett said that the President had been informed of Porter’s death. “President Clinton knew Art ever since he was a boy and they had always kept in touch,” Bendett said.

“Art Porter was a treasured member of the Verve / Polygram family,” said Chuck Mitchell, Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Verve Group. “He was a great musician and a tremendous performer. More than that, Art was a warm and generous spirit who touched all who met him and heard his music. Our deepest condolences and sympathies go out to Art’s family in this time of sadness.”

Art was an engaging performer and continued to earn rave reviews for his live performances. One person recounted her experience at seeing him play: “He came down into the audience, walked through our row and stopped right in front of me and played! It was such a thrill. Even though I had never met him, he just gave you this warm sense of being.” In a recent profile in Jazziz magazine, he recounted his father’s advice to him about playing for the people. “I think what it’s really about is giving to people and moving them. And hopefully, there’s some people out there to appreciate it.”

Art Porter was 35 years old. He is survived by his wife, Barbie, and two sons, Arthur III and Arrington, ages 6 and 3.

11 Replies to “Obituary: Art Porter 1961-1996”

  1. Mr. Porter is one of my all time personal favorites. All of his releases are very nice, however to me, “Pocket City” is of monumental proportion. I listen to him on a regular basis and probably always will. Apparently God considered his life’s purpose fulfilled and called him home way early. Though he’s not alone in this category, I perceive his recorded work as music from heaven. His legacy lives on. May he rest peacefully eternally!!!

  2. Art Porter is my older cousin i never got to meet, i love music and when i was younger my dad spoke of him a lot. I was only five when he passed and don’t remember much about him, but it’s a blessing to know that his music was and still is touching so many lives.

  3. Yes his music is graceful smooth jazz played a lot of his music my personal favorites are lakeshore drive and inside myself to this day I still listen to his music RIP

  4. Art Porter Jr. to this day is my inspiration for playing Sax. His style of playing is unmatched. Every note he played seemed to be in the right place at the right time – with awesome delivery. I saw him alive in Philly and was truly amazed at the entertainment value he possessed. I am so grateful for his 35 life years on earth. I am sure God is pleased with his angel.

  5. Art Porter was my Jr high band teacher. He was an awesome musician and an amazing person. Never forgotten…

  6. Art was a great preformer, I saw him live in my home town Philadelphia, he never missed a note, while dancing and moving on stage. He was one of the best artist I have ever seen perform. He will be missed. God takes the greats to put in his band. I know he’s up there jamin with greats of the past. Rest in peace.

  7. Art was headed to be one of the greatest sax players of all time. a great stage preformer and a crowd pleaser,bringing r&b an funk jazz style

  8. I had the great privilege to be his friend from 1988 until the tragic accident took his life in 1996. I was there when he decided to leave a close friends local Waukegan group, to create his own group in Chicago, getting signed to a major label Polygram Verve, touring the world, recording, composing, performing to the China Club, with Ramsey Lewis, on TV with Herbie Hancock for Verves 50 anniversary. We miss him very much. Roxcty 1.

  9. Art Porter Jr was a tremendous talent, as do many of us know. Though I never had the opportunity to see him perform live not meet him in person, I did have the privilege of interviewing him via phone on three separate occasions. This is a wonderful forum here to share kne’skne’ s thoughts about a genre of music that is often marginalized and misunderstood. Art Porter Jr, and countless others made their own signature statements in contemporary jazz. His talent defied categories. I was fortunate to have bern given a platform recently by All About Jazz.com Publisher and Editor Michael Ricci to write a tribute to Art Porter Jr. Thank you very much for this forum. It is an idea place to give respect to artists whose work will be steadfastly appreciated. Thank you so much and God bless.

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