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Gregory Porter on why Russian gangsters love his music

The smooth jazzman has (scary) friends in high places

Gregory Porter on why Russian gangsters love his music
26 October 2016

As the new documentary Don’t Forget Your Music shows, you’re big in the UK but massive in Russia. Why?

It’s the same thing that connects me to anyone – authenticity. Many places I’ve been in Russia and Ukraine, people can’t speak English. But they understand emotion.

What’s the farthest flung place you’ve performed?

Omsk and Tomsk are way deep into Siberia. It was like being a cultural ambassador. We went to spots no one goes to perform. Teenagers from villages were seeing a black person for the first time – all these people coming and touching you [laughs]. Police would stop us and ask questions. I’d perform on the street to prove who I was. When a big, tough-looking Russian guy slaps on your passport, you do what you need to do.

Were there any impromptu gigs on the Trans-Siberian Railway?

Absolutely. We met an accordion player and a guitar player. We’d have jams. It’s extraordinary. You’re in a car with complete strangers on an 18-hour train ride. You’ll stop in a satellite town, pick up a roast chicken and share it with whoever’s with you.

What was the strangest thing that happened to you?

In Perm, a city by the Ural Mountains, the show’s two promoters were gangsters [laughs]. When they picked us up from the airport, I was puzzled why they were driving on the sidewalk and not paying attention to the traffic lights. They controlled the city. The club we performed at was a jazz club by night, strip club by late, late night. I was singing songs about love and respect and it turned into this hardcore strip club as soon as I finished.

We take it you left?

Are you kidding me? Of course I stayed.

Any close shaves with the mobsters?

They just loved my music. We had shots of vodka afterwards. Then, the next morning, one of them had broken fingers. Both had black eyes. There was a fight over the show’s proceeds.  

What’s a good singing tip for someone who can’t sing but wants to?

Sing all the time. Do it as you’re walking down the street. You might look crazy, but do it. I do it all the time. A good soul song to practise with is You Send Me by Sam Cooke. Fly Me To The Moon is an easy jazz tune. Classic melodies that stick in your head, nothing too difficult.

Jazz can be a daunting genre to get into. Any tips for novices?

It can be. That’s only because the umbrella of jazz is so large. Find one artist you like, check out their influences and go from there. Or start with someone who’s on the cusp of jazz as a starting point, such as Donny Hathaway or Marvin Gaye.

What’s your favourite jazz bar in the world?

I’d love to know where the hell I was, but there was an underground club in Zaporizhia, Ukraine, that was cool. It made me miss my jazz club in Harlem.

Did you party with Disclosure after your track with them, Holding On, came out?

Oh yeah [laughs]. They had a couple of very expensive bottles of champagne backstage that they shook and sprayed on each other. It was like $600 of champagne on the floor and in someone’s hair. I think it was their mother and grandmother who got sprinkled. They’re very grounded rock stars.

You performed on Jimmy Kimmel when Donald Trump was also a guest. What’s he like?

Never got to meet him. He had Secret Service protection [laughs]. All I got was a breeze of him walking by. I think his divisiveness has already had a profound effect on the American population. The damage has been done – whether he wins or not.

You’re a foodie and used to be a chef. What would your own restaurant look like?

It’s a dream to have a small, five-item-a-day type place with maybe 10 tables and
live performances. An international menu with a Californian mix and Asian influences. I cook Indian food, I love curries, I’m all over the map. I learned how to cook borscht [a sour beetroot soup] from an 85-year-old woman in Moscow when I was on tour. I make good borscht.

Who are your style icons?

He’s never close to anything I’ve tried to emulate, but David Bowie was interesting. He could wear a three-piece suit and turn around and do something completely different. I love the freedom and expression the Seventies artists had. Like Al Green and Nat King Cole, record cover to record cover. Man, those cats were doing it. I equate the classic jazz musicians to the preachers I grew up with at church – each had their own unique style.

Would you ever swap your ‘jazz hat’ for another form of headwear? A beanie, maybe?

I wouldn’t. I’ve been meaning to get together with a few hat-makers, but this is my thing, this is my style. I wear different hats for different outings. But for my performances, I’m going to stick with this.

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