Vail Jazz Workshop alumnus Ryan Porter: ‘The music chose me’
Editor’s Note: Over the past 27 years, more than 300 teenage musicians have been transformed by the Vail Jazz Workshop. Many have become professional musicians, including six returning to Vail this Labor Day weekend to perform as the Alumni Sextet during the Vail Jazz Party. Vail Jazz shares their stories here.
Growing up in a rough Los Angeles neighborhood as the son of a single mom could have broken Ryan Porter’s musical ambitions. Indeed, it could have squelched any ambition at all. But that was not to be the fate of this committed trombonist, who discovered jazz at an early age.
Or, perhaps it is more appropriate to say, jazz discovered him.
“I grew up in the ‘80s in South Central LA. If I told you some of the things I’d seen as early as four years old, you’d think I was lying,” Porter said. “Nobody wanted to hear about those experiences. The only time people listened to me was when I played the trombone. That pushed me further to play my music.”
Porter was introduced to jazz by his grandfather, an avid record collector and jazz enthusiast. “My grandfather was an auto mechanic. I would sit with him in our garage where he had a crazy number of crates of records, more than you could count.” When his grandfather’s hands became too greasy to handle the vinyl, Porter would act as DJ. “I was mesmerized by album covers; that’s how I chose the records.” Impressed by his grandson’s interest, the elder Porter began to educate the young boy, sharing stories about meeting some of the greatest jazz musicians of the time.
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Looking back, Porter remembers a unique calling during those afternoons with his granddad. “Everything chose me. The instruments chose me. The music chose me. I needed to investigate the music that makes you feel so good.”
The instrument that ultimately chose Porter was the trombone. “There was an album with this guy in the spotlight on the cover with a trombone. I didn’t know what the instrument was, but the player was in the spotlight. I thought that was cool.” The album was “Proof Positive,” by jazz trombonist J. J. Johnson. Porter was a restless kid and the trombone’s portability — “It looked easy to carry around” — appealed to him. He worked odd jobs and earned enough to pay for half a trombone. (His mother paid for the other half.)
Porter credits LA arts educator Fernando Pullman with setting him on the path toward success. It was Pullman who introduced Porter to Vail Jazz founders Howard and Cathy Stone, and they invited Porter to participate in the inaugural 1996 Vail Jazz Workshop. The Workshop, Porter said, “really planted some seeds for me and set me off in a positive direction.” It culminated in the Vail Jazz Party, and “there was a lot of incredible talent there,” Porter recalled. “I was particularly inspired by Roy Hargrove” – the legendary trumpeter who performed at the VJP that summer. “He was very approachable. We connected. I was learning very fast.”
A 2001 graduate of New York’s Manhattan School of Music, Porter is an in-demand performer. He has toured with the likes of Stevie Wonder, Rihanna, Kanye West, Snoop Dogg, and the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra (co-founded by Workshop Education Director John Clayton). Porter is a founding member of the genre-defying West Coast Get Down collective, which melds jazz, hip-hop, and funk; the group has been cited as revitalizing jazz for younger audiences.
Porter’s 2017 debut album, “Spangle Lang-Lane,” featured his imaginative reworking of classic nursery rhymes, set to soul, blues, and jazz melodies. “My two daughters changed my whole world. Once they knew the traditional nursery rhymes, I changed them up. I wanted to make sure they were invested as I was.” The album’s release was accompanied by music videos, complete with hand puppets based on famous jazz musicians like Duke Ellington and John Coltrane. Subsequent albums include “The Optimist” (2018) and “Force for Good” (2019).
Poetry is a particular interest of Porter’s. “My grandmother never had a proper education, but she was one of the smartest people I knew. She had knowledge. She gave me the book ‘Life Doesn’t Frighten Me’ by Maya Angelou. It intrigued me.” Porter subsequently composed music to accompany many of his favorite Angelou poems, which will be featured on his next release. “I feel like this could deliver a strong message, uplifting message. It’s about being human. It’s about everybody.”
Although his childhood wasn’t easy, Porter is grateful for the journey that brought him to this juncture of his career. “I wouldn’t change a thing. I’ve had the opportunity to travel with my music and become a global seeker. I go places and, everywhere, I receive all types of love. It becomes overwhelming. It has rewired me,” he said
“I’m not the same young man that grew up in South Central. I’m not. I’ve torn down the walls I grew up with and filled the space with love from people all over the world.”