After decades of activism and jazz fandom, Tom Porter has become chief archivist of the Black Arts Movement’s secret musical history.
“I bet you know who’s singin’,” grins Tom Porter to the woman behind the counter as she fixes him a cup of coffee to go.
“Let my brain warm up a little,” she yawns. The ’60s anthem “A Change Is Gonna Come” floats through the coffee shop, a queer soundtrack to the Edward Hopper world outside the window, where Connecticut Avenue lies cold and abandoned in the January dark. “Otis Redding?”
Porter is surprised. The barista usually tanks in the daily 6 a.m. round of Name That Singer. And this was something of a trick question: The song was a posthumous hit for Sam Cooke in 1965, before Redding recorded it the following year. Walking back to his black Volvo, Porter, clad in baggy burgundy sweats, pristine white sneakers, and an earth-toned baseball cap advertising Stoney’s Beer, tries to laugh off his defeat. But he can manage only a dry, forced chuckle.
Inside the car, a recording by Philadelphia pianist Orrin Evans spins in the CD player. “He’s out, but he’s not as out as I thought,” says Porter, 62, of the young musician, as he drives eastward through the District. “So I’ve had to adjust my expectations.”
When we pull into a parking lot across from RFK Stadium, it’s still too early for any signs of the weekly Saturday flea market. Porter says he inherited the habit of rising early from his grandfather, an Alabama farmer nicknamed Son Boy. He lets the car idle for heat as he free-associates: “I don’t consider Cornel West an intellectual, because he doesn’t have a body of work. Like Wynton Marsalis—can you name one Wynton Marsalis song?”
I shake my head as big white and yellow moving trucks amble into the lot, each filled with used wares culled from storage auctions. On more than one occasion, Porter has thumbed through a book for sale here to find an old buddy’s name scribbled across the flyleaf. “Amiri Baraka—now he can talk about the history of life, of Africa,” Porter muses, the sun’s first rays illuminating his smoky-gray beard.
Baraka, the writer, activist, and architect of the Black Arts Movement, is part of the reason Porter is here. Sifting through a filing cabinet in Baraka’s basement in Newark, N.J., several years ago, Porter uncovered a cache of reel-to-reel recordings of avant-garde jazz concerts and literary readings that Baraka staged in the cellar of Spirit House, his earlier Newark residence. Three of those shows—a Baraka-penned play performed by Sun Ra’s Myth Science Arkestra, a concert featuring free-jazz drummer Sunny Murray’s quartet, and a kind of poetry-and-song night involving a group of locals—were issued soon after on limited vinyl pressings on Baraka’s homespun label, Jihad Records. No more than 1,000 copies of each ever left Spirit House.
Other dates, including those showcasing saxophonist Archie Shepp, trumpeter Don Ayler’s quintet, and the only known musical meeting of free-jazz sax titans Pharoah Sanders and Albert Ayler, were captured on tape and stashed in Baraka’s basement until Porter uncovered them in 1998. For a lifelong jazz zealot like Porter, finding those recordings was like striking gold. The Sanders-Ayler collaboration is so little-known that Sanders denied ever having shared a stage with Ayler when Porter approached him at a Blues Alley show last year.
To give the Spirit House shows a second life—and procure a little post-retirement dough—Porter launched his own label, called Son Boy, in 2000. Last year, he released the play acted out by Sun Ra’s troupe, titled A Black Mass, for the first time on CD. The initial pressing of 1,000 sold out, and a similarly sized second batch is shrinking quickly. This month, Porter plans to put out two more Spirit House shows: the Murray concert, released on Jihad as Sunny’s Time Now, and the poetry-and-song night, titled Black & Beautiful, Soul & Madness.
Which is where the flea market fits in. To help finance Son Boy, which needs to cough up about $5,000 in production costs for each CD it issues, Porter has come to hunt for undervalued vinyl that he can turn around for serious cash on the used-record market. An old Blue Note disc or an early record from the Bronx rap duo Black Sheep, the current toast of the D.C. club circuit, can fetch $25 to $100 from the right buyer—and occasionally turns up at the market in a $1 bin.
Not that Porter really needs any more titles. White plastic crates stuffed with an estimated 20,000 records are stacked in columns four crates high in every room on the first floor of his Columbia Heights house, and they cover the floor and an archipelago of folding tables in the basement. He wants to liquidate all but a few thousand of his favorites for Son Boy capital. But even though he says that he’s come to the market to raise funds, he’s also here because, since the days when he played hooky to take in records at the public library, a vinyl disc has been spinning through every frame of his life’s story. “The challenge here,” he says, gazing through the windshield at merchants setting up tables, “is to walk around without buying anything.”
After an hour of browsing, Porter pulls out of the lot with nothing to show for his efforts but a framed poster of a James Denmark painting he’s bought as a gift for his daughter. Our next stop is Goodwill, where Porter drops off a boxload of vinyl leftovers from a Blue Note-heavy collection of 500 titles he picked up for $75 at a recent estate sale. Porter likes to buy and sell in bulk, though these days he’s usually not at the receiving end. He sets up shop twice a year at weekend record shows in New York City, where he can rake in as much as $8,000 per show, and invites Japanese and European collectors to comb through his basement warehouse—a place where, Porter says, you should be willing to spend at least $3,000. Lately, he’s been assembling hundreds of records for a lot he hopes will fetch three or four grand, a task that’s taking a serious physical toll.
“I’ve seen better days,” Porter says as he opens his front door the next afternoon, dressed in the same burgundy sweat pants, a loose-fitting beige shirt, and black sandals; he’s holding a nearly finished glass of cognac in his left hand. “My back is killing from lifting these crates of records.” The crates are ubiquitous even in Porter’s kitchen and bathroom, where more than a dozen are stowed beneath the sink and around the toilet.
Reclined on a metal folding chair in his living room, Porter rattles off the name of every musician who played on the first record he ever purchased, Dinah Washington’s Dinah Jams, released when Porter was 15. Hawking the evening paper in the jazz clubs of Cincinnati’s West End, Porter made his money and got his musical kicks simultaneously—a scheme that he’s trying to repeat with Son Boy.
While other newspaper boys blew their evening wages on candy and popcorn at the grocery where they got paid, Porter took his daily 70 cents to a neighborhood joint called Frankie’s Barbecue. “I’d get a poor man’s barbecue sandwich, kind of like a chipped barbecue, which was 30 or 35 cents, and I’d play James Moody’s ‘A Hundred Years From Today’ and ‘NJR (I’m Gone)’ on the jukebox,” he says. “I didn’t know who James Moody was, but I played it every evening.”
At Walnut Hills High School, Porter was one of about a dozen blacks in a graduating class of more than 200. As a senior, he worked as a stock boy in a five-and-dime in the upper-crust neighborhood of Hyde Park. One day, a customer insisted that Porter refer to the store’s owner, whom everyone called Lou, as “Mr. Lou.” “That was kind of it,” he says. “I was eating my lunch that day out on the square and I said, ‘The hell with Mr. Lou, and the hell with everyone else.’”
Porter joined the Navy after graduation and was stationed as a dental technician in Pensacola, Fla. An enlisted man, he checked out books from a shelf in the base’s library labeled “Suggested Officers’ Reading” just to rattle the librarian, a military chaplain. He also began to build his album collection, buying his first recordings by Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman from the PX.
Following his military service, Porter worked his way through the University of Cincinnati on the post office’s night shift—during which he sold records out of his locker—and then took a job as a probation officer. At the same time, he was climbing the ranks of the Cincinnati chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, which organized boycotts and sit-ins. He soon quit his day job to become a “full-time radical” and opened the Black Arts Studio, a book-and-record shop that also exhibited paintings by local artists, in Walnut Hills.
“Before it opened, you couldn’t get black books,” he says. “There were no record stores carrying ‘Trane or Eric Dolphy, either. I opened the store for the same reason I started the record label: because this stuff is out there, but it’s in the basement. Why not try to get it out there?”
By the time the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, in April 1968, Cincinnati had become a staging ground for battles between the police and black activists. After breaking up a fight between two black gangs in a restaurant parking lot, Porter, then a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, found himself in the cross hairs of police guns. A local newspaper branded him a “black-power leader”—a title Porter believed reduced him to a stereotype. He decided to split town with his wife and two young daughters.
After grad school at Ohio’s Antioch College and stints heading an Antioch graduate center based in D.C., the King Center in Atlanta, and the black-studies department at Ohio University, Porter decided, in 1983, to run for Congress. That same year, he accepted an invitation to join Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign as chief strategist. With an uncontested primary in his own district, Porter didn’t plan to return to Cincinnati until the close of the next summer.
“I’d say [to Jackson], ‘Here are the local issues,’ and I wrote his speeches,” Porter says. “But I think in the end he wanted to replace Martin and, you know, you can’t. Coltrane didn’t replace Charlie Parker—he took his own place.”
Like Jackson, Porter wound up losing his raise. He then spent a few years as program director for D.C.’s Pacifica Radio affiliate, WPFW, and, just before founding Son Boy, tried his hand at operating a U Street record shop called Interstellar Discs. “The landlord wouldn’t give me a sign, so people thought I was a beauty parlor, because that’s what was downstairs,” he says. “I had to blast music out of the second-story window for advertising.” He moved out after a year, with the record label quickly replacing the open window as his means of getting music out into the world.
As dusk darkens his living room, Porter picks up a long cardboard box filled with CDs and says, “This is Son Boy Records.” He pulls out the master copy of Black & Beautiful, Soul & Madness and drops it into the CD player. Baraka’s voice, shadowed by a chorus chanting Smokey Robinson’s “Ooo Baby Baby,” jumps into the room: “Beautiful black women/They fail/They are so beautiful we want them with us/We fail/And then/Lips stick out perpetually at our weakness…”
The box is filled with future Son Boy releases: the debut recording of a Cincinnati blues vocalist in his 60s named Bill Caffie, who once sang with Count Basie; a session featuring free-jazz violinist Billy Bang and saxophonist Frank Lowe recorded last year in New York; more Sun Ra stuff from Spirit House. Porter also talks of acquiring a European record label and reissuing its catalog on CD. But until the two Spirit House shows are released later this month, only A Black Mass is officially out.
Porter believes that the demand for more releases is there, though. Among the most lucrative single-record deals in his portfolio is the sale of an original vinyl copy of A Black Mass to a dealer in Japan for $1,000. But Porter doesn’t see his attempt to cash in as selling out.
“You always have to have something that allows you to cope with the bullshit—some form of rebellion,” he says. “Hooking school was a form of rebellion; going to the library was a form of rebellion.” So is releasing the shows from Spirit House, where a generation of black writers, actors, and musicians railed against mainstream America in literature, theater, and song. To prove that recordings of those heady nights are commercially viable today would be a reaffirmation of the cause.
“Think of the label’s original name: Jihad,” Porter says. “Is Ashcroft gonna put my name on a list? Probably.” CP