To find Interstellar Disc, a graveyard of jazz on vinyl, you have to know where to look. It’s at the corner of 12th and U Streets NW, hiding among a row of neon storefronts. In case you don’t notice the poster of Miles Davis looking ’70s-sublime from the second-floor window, owner Thomas Porter has printed out a humble set of directions from his computer in case you get lost: Use a side door, go up the stairs, make a left past the ladies sitting in chairs drying their hair under salon helmets, and go down a dark hallway.
Make another left and you’ll find Porter, who opened his store in February, sitting quietly behind his desk, looking like a weary Buddha with his big arms lying in the pit of his belly. After a variegated career, Porter has become a quiet jazz messenger. He is as unassuming as his shop front.
Opposite Porter sits Orlanda Hedgepeth, who helps around the store pricing records and offering advice. Porter calls him “the godfather.” Hedgepeth serves as a sort of human footnote to Porter’s steady monologues on the record biz and jazz history. He sits inspecting a stack of ragged 45s. A customer meanders inside.
“Looking for anything in particular?” Porter asks the customer.
“Jazz,” the guy says. The two leave it at that.
Porter sees his place as an “after-hours club” or, alternately, a “living work of art, a living museum.” Record junkies are likely to get dizzy digressing, wide-eyed, among the stacks of raritiesranging from Art Blakey’s Mosaic to a recalled Jackson Five album titled Boogieand forget what they were looking for. Simply spying a Reid Miles-designed Blue Note cover in the cool flesh is worth a visit.
For Porter, opening up this treasure chest was as simple as clearing out his house. “I had records in my bathroom,” he says. “I still do. I have 19 crates of records in my bathroom. I don’t need 19 crates. It’s not big enough for a stereo; if it was big enough, I’d play music in there….The records pushed me out of the house.”
Porter has always cluttered his life with music and politics. He grew up in Cincinnati, getting into nightclubs as an adolescent by delivering the evening newspaper. He would always end up at the jukebox. After college and a stint in the Navy, Porter opened up the Black Arts Studio in Cincinnati, where Nikki Giovanni, H. Rap Brown, and LeRoi Jones visited when they were in town. He started digging John Cage; he saw Coltrane eight times. He collected African-American paintings and books while working variously as college dean, graduate program director, and teacher at the University of the District of Columbia. Porter also ran the Martin Luther King Center in Atlanta, made a failed run for Congress, hosted a talk show on WPFW, and served as an advisor to Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign. “I spent most of my life as an educator,” he says, “which is what I do at the store.”Jason Cherkis