Bob Porter, jazz producer and broadcaster, dies at 80
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Bob Porter, jazz producer and broadcaster, dies at 80
Bob Porter at a Lincoln Center jazz event for the radio station WBGO in New York, May 1, 2018. Porter, who as a record producer guided the reissue of vast swaths of the classic jazz canon, and who as a broadcaster helped build WBGO into the largest jazz radio station in the New York City area, died on April 10 at his home in Northvale, N.J. He was 80. Jacob Blickenstaff/The New York Times.

by Giovanni Russonello

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Bob Porter, who as a record producer guided the reissue of vast swaths of the classic jazz canon, and who as a broadcaster helped build WBGO into the largest jazz radio station in the New York City area, died April 10 at his home in Northvale, New Jersey. He was 80.

The cause was complications of esophageal cancer, his wife, Linda Calandra Porter, said.

Rock ’n’ roll had mostly eclipsed jazz in the public ear by the time Bob Porter produced his first album for Prestige Records, organist Charles Kynard’s “Professor Soul” (1968), for which he also wrote the liner notes. Porter began regularly producing sessions for the label, mostly in the soul jazz style of the day, including outings by saxophonists Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt, organists Jimmy McGriff and Charles Earland and guitarist Pat Martino, among many others.

He went on to take part in the creation of hundreds of albums as a producer and author of liner notes for a variety of labels. Much of that work was on boxed sets and reissues of archival material.

He won a Grammy in 1978 for his liner notes to the five-disc “Charlie Parker: The Complete Savoy Studio Sessions,” which he also produced. He later won the best historical album Grammy in 1986, for producing the compilation “Atlantic Rhythm and Blues 1947-1974, Vols. 1-7.”

Interviewed that year by Rolling Stone, Porter recalled putting together the Atlantic box alongside Ahmet Ertegun, the label’s famed co-founder. Some of Atlantic’s original master tapes had burned in a fire, so Porter drew upon his network of fellow vinyl collectors to track down original pressings. His main goal, he said, was accuracy and completeness.

“We tried to list in copious detail everything we could about the original recording date — the singers, the bands, every piece of information we could unravel,” he said. “The most important thing in doing any work of this nature is that you get it right.”

But he also wanted to make a historical point about how social history shapes genre. “We decided to stop in 1974 because that, in a sense, marked the end of an era,” he said. “When you get into disco and rap music, you’re really talking about something that’s very different. The conditions in the country were a lot different when this music was being made. I think that the demise of soul and R&B may ultimately be viewed as a casualty of integration.”

In the 1980s, jazz’s commercial fortunes perked up, thanks partly to the advent of compact discs, which led listeners to buy reissues of old albums. Working most often with Atlantic, Porter led the remastering process for CD reissues by the likes of Duke Ellington, Ray Charles and Lester Young.

As soon as WBGO hit the airwaves at 88.3 FM in 1979, broadcasting out of Newark, New Jersey, but reaching across New York City, Porter started volunteering as a host. Two years later, he began a daily show, “Portraits in Blue,” which went on to be syndicated by NPR stations around the country and would continue for the next 40 years. He later hosted two additional shows, “Saturday Morning Function,” which focused on R&B and jump blues, and “Swing Party,” heard on Sunday mornings.

On his podcast earlier this month, Nate Chinen, director of editorial content at WBGO, called Porter “a Mount Rushmore figure when it comes to Newark public radio — someone who was on the air, really, from Day 1.”

Robert Sherwin Porter was born in Wellesley, Massachusetts, on June 20, 1940, to David Porter, who ran the financial advisory firm David L. Babson & Co., and Constance (Kavanaugh) Porter, a homemaker. The eldest of four siblings, Bob Porter attended Whittier College in California, where he studied English before serving in the Army, stationed in Fairbanks, Alaska.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by his brothers, John and William Porter; a sister, Linda (Porter) Owens; a son from a previous marriage, David Porter; two stepsons, Michael and Rick Tombari; and a granddaughter.

After his military service, Bob Porter returned to Whittier to complete his degree. While still in school, he began contributing to DownBeat magazine. His articles caught the attention of Bob Weinstock, the head of Prestige, who was impressed by Porter’s erudition and offered him a job with the label.

Porter’s passion for the artistic and cultural history of African American music stretched back to its earliest known recordings, and he was deeply knowledgeable about blues as well as jazz.

He received awards from various music societies and foundations. In addition to his two Grammys, those included a 1986 W.C. Handy Award (now known as the Blues Music Award) from the Blues Foundation and a 2003 Community Service Award from the Bergen County chapter of the NAACP. In 2009, he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.

Porter became a published author late in life, self-releasing “Soul Jazz: Jazz in the Black Community, 1945-1975” in 2016. That book gave a detailed history of the jazz musicians who were especially popular in Black communities just after World War II, but who at the time had rarely come under the gaze of white critics.

A white writer himself, Porter felt compelled to redress the omission. “Black communities had their own heroes, and Black fans of jazz had their own way of responding to the music,” he wrote in the book’s preface. “I have helped dozens of researchers and writers through the years, and I always hoped that one of them would tackle this untold story. Nobody did, and now most of the greatest players are gone. Thus, I decided to do this myself.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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