'It's a code for living': Gregory Porter and José James on the music of their heroes

'It's a code for living': Gregory Porter and José James on the music of their heroes
Gregory Porter, left, and José James have new projects inspired, respectively, by Nat King Cole and Bill Withers. (Erik Umphery; Cherry Chill Will)

With their original songwriting and their far-flung collaborations with the likes of Disclosure and Jason Moran, Gregory Porter and José James have spent the last decade buoying hopes that vocal jazz has a healthy future.


But with their new projects these singers are looking proudly to the past at two of the groundbreaking artists who inspired them to take up music in the first place.

On “Nat King Cole & Me,” which came out late last year, Porter pays loving homage to the late balladeer, while “Lean on Me,” due in September, offers James’ soulful renditions of a dozen tunes by Bill Withers (who turned 80 last month). Both records feel uncommonly personal at a moment when hastily assembled tribute albums have become a fixture of the music industry.

So with each man scheduled to bring a concert version of his salute to the Hollywood Bowl — Porter on Wednesday night, James on Aug. 29 — the time seemed right to get them on the phone to compare notes. These are excerpts from our conversation.

Talk about discovering these musicians who made such deep impacts. What grabbed you?

Gregory Porter: Nat for me was an artist that I listened to really early, before I even understood anything that anybody was doing with music. I was just drawn to it; I didn’t know why. Now, as I think about it later, it was the timbre of his voice — this warm sound coming out of the stereo. And it was the circumstances, with the absence of my father. Listening to Nat’s voice — hearing it sound like a recorded daddy — that had a very powerful effect on me.

José James: I didn’t grow up with my dad either, and I think a lot of us in the black and Latin community find these father figures through music. Bill Withers, Nat King Cole, Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway: I look at these artists as older brothers, uncles, musical daddies. You hear them at the barbershop, at the basketball court, at a barbecue. Bill’s music and his words — it’s like family. “Lean on Me” is more than a song or even an anthem. It’s a code for living.

Porter: It becomes like scripture. Nat King Cole, “Nature Boy”: “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” OK, that stuck in my head. I believe that.

How are Cole and Withers alike?

James: I call them bridge figures, where there’s a strong before and after. Miles Davis is another one. These are people who were able to synthesize all the musical accomplishments of their community or society, internalize it and then transform it into something that never happened before. For Nat King Cole, he’s taking all of the great jazz and ragtime and blues and gospel music — and novelty songs as well — and turning it into this sophisticated cocktail that was really the beginning of pop music. And you look at Bill Withers — I can’t think about John Legend, D’Angelo, Tracy Chapman — really any black singer-songwriter — without Bill’s influence.

You think about the way they handled politics too. Both of them came out of a potentially crippling racist experience. I’ve read about Nat getting pulled off the stage by angry white mobs. And Bill grew up in Slab Fork, W. Va. — a coal-mining town in the Emmett Till era, one of the most segregated places in America. This man did nine years in the Navy, came out and got an engineering degree but couldn’t get a job as a black man in the ’60s. And then he still turns around and writes “Lean on Me,” a song about unity. I think they share an optimism.

Porter: I sometimes think of Nat as an archetype that a Barack Obama came from. He fully knows who he is; he fully knows the hue of his skin tone. And he knows the perceived negatives of a black male, a black entertainer. But in his performance — in his eloquence and his diction — he just quietly knocks the [expletive] out of all that untruth.

People could get upset about him not using the platform of his television show to knock down barriers. But Nat was dark-skinned with big lips — undeniably black, you understand what I’m saying? Him just physically being there — the first black man to have his own television show — is knocking down barriers. Music and entertainment have done an enormous amount to allow people into the front door of America.

James: But like you said, even when Nat got that achievement, people would demand more. Just the way the black community did for Obama: “Why can’t you say what we want you to say?” But of course it’s a sacrifice that black entertainers are forced to make all the time. Women as well.

I was happy when I saw you were paying tribute to Nat. And I know it’s done in a different spirit than Diana Krall, for example, when she did her tribute. Lot of people do a tribute to Nat King Cole, which is cool. He had the most innovative jazz trio in the world — John Pizzarelli should honor that. But I know that when you’re doing it, it has this deeper meaning that we’re talking about.

Porter: When I’m thinking about Nat’s music I’m thinking about it in the context of the time in which it was created — and when my mother received it. What would it have meant to her, coming back from doing something in the civil rights movement, to hear, “Pick yourself up / Dust yourself off / And start all over again”? In that context it takes on a profound meaning — not this milquetoast thought that many see.


What about now? In your view, how have each of them come to be regarded?

James: These brothers were so influential, and I think to this day they’ve not gotten the credit. When people think about Nat, they don’t think he developed his sound. But he did. That beautiful pop ballad that he and Nelson Riddle crafted at Capitol didn’t exist before him. Then Sinatra — and I love Frank — came and was, like, “Oh, I’ll take that.”

And “Lovely Day” — how many songs have been written out of that song? Look at Justin Timberlake, “Can’t Stop the Feeling.” He made it crystal clear when he performed it that it came out of “Lovely Day” — actually performed “Lovely Day” after it. But even the fact that he has to spell it out as one of the most famous white entertainers in the world — it kind of shows you where we’re at.

Withers famously retired in the mid-1980s, which limited his exposure.

James: He made the decision that scares America the most: He chose to be a proud black man who doesn’t need anything from anybody. Jay-Z has retired three times now; Sade has retired four times. We’re still shocked that Dave Chappelle walked away from a $50-million check, and he’s back.

But Bill Withers walked away from it all — like, for real. I sat down with him in L.A. and he said, “I did my thing, I made my mark, I left a trail for the next generation. And I’m good.” Nobody knows what to do with that man.


Cole was disruptive in a different way. What’s instructive about the way he conducted his career?

Porter: From what I have gleaned in my study, there’s a bit of Nat in me. He has this passive-aggressive protest. I think in his career he was a pioneer, and the people who are pioneers, they’re just driving ahead. Nat was, like, “OK, no black person has lived in this neighborhood before? I’m just gonna do it.” He was saying, “Don’t deny me. Don’t marginalize me.” And I love the fact that he did so many different things — the record in German and the record in Spanish. Not being pigeonholed is something I get from Nat.

Your connection to him comes through on your album.

Porter: I wrote a song 20 years ago called “Unintended Consequence,” and it was about Nat King Cole not knowing when he stood at the microphone that there would be a little boy who would imagine him as his father and who would sing his music. The lyric is, “You never knew after your final hour / There’d be this unintended consequence of you being you.” That’s me speaking directly to Nat. So with this record, I’m basically saying to him, “This is some of the fruit of your work.”

James: The obvious difference for me is that Bill is still here. I did a tribute to Billie Holiday a few years ago, and there’s that remove and that distance — a safety, in a way, because she’s not gonna hear it. But Bill will probably show up at the Bowl. He’ll be sitting there, like, “Bro, you better get it right.”

Gregory Porter with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave.

Tickets: $12-$142

George Benson, Ledisi and José James

When: 8 p.m. Aug. 29

Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave.

Tickets: $22-$127