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.
Although 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.