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Ross Porter: The Voice of Jazz

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From 1993 to 2001, Ross Porter was the voice of jazz in Canada every weekday evening on CBC’s “After Hours,” a highly popular radio show broadcast out of Winnipeg. After a brief stint at CoolTV, Ross moved to Toronto in 2004 where he has built a highly successful station, Jazz.FM91. In 2006, he published the best-selling book, The Essential Jazz Recordings, a guide that shows astute insight as well as a broad and very personal knowledge of jazz musicians around the world. He has won several broadcasting awards and continues to inspire people on and off the air. I think of Ross Porter as one of the most influential people in the jazz scene in Canada. I caught up with him at his home in Toronto.

In your book, The Essential Jazz Recordings, you talk about how those 1960s recordings produced by Creed Taylor captured your imagination. I remember putting on Wes Montgomery’s Bumpin’ on Sunset and Ron Carter’s All Blues—I didn’t even know jazz but those records just knocked me out. What is it about them, do you think?

Your timing on this is remarkable. I just came from New York where I’m working on a documentary series about Creed Taylor. I think he’s an underappreciated record producer, from those Bethlehem days through the Impulse years to Verve to CTI. Some of his critics accuse him for making jazz too accessible, but I have nothing but praise for what he achieved in terms of bringing jazz to the mainstream.

The magic about Creed is the way he puts the elements together. He recognized talent on the engineering side with heavy hitters like Rudy Van Gelder, Phil Ramone and others. He recognized talent on the arranging side too. Claus Ogerman and Don Sebesky, for instance—their work is amazing and Creed was there at the start. He had an instinct for the right repertoire too. He looked towards the songs that were popular and started to bring them into the mainstream.

He also recognized talent. With both headliners and sidemen, his ability to recognize talent was crucial. He took Gil Evans into the recording studio, and Oliver Nelson, and Freddie Hubbard. He signed John Coltrane to Impulse. Pat Metheny said to me once that a person’s perception of Creed Taylor’s work is kind of a litmus test: if they don’t understand what he was trying to accomplish, they don’t see the big picture of jazz.

You hand-picked 101 recordings for your book. For you, what makes a jazz recording memorable?

Bill Evans said to me one time that great music is about musical truth and beauty—I look for those qualities. Memorable jazz has a personality, so I look for a distinctive voice, a distinctive sound. It also has to withstand the test of time. Time puts music in perspective—you can hear a great recording today and perceive it as fantastic, but the question is, how will it stand up in ten years’ time?

So what message would you give today’s aspiring recording artists?

You have to capture the essence of who you are as a personality, and you have to get people’s attention. One of the mistakes I see now is artists making recordings for themselves. They lose sight of the fact that you have to get people to write about it and play it.

Also, people don’t listen to music the way they used to. There’s so many demands on them, whether it’s the 500-channel universe or being able to play your iPod in the car. You have to be sensitive to people’s time. This isn’t new, mind you. Creed told me that when he began, he started paying attention to the length of the solos, and asking himself, is there a musical statement here? For some players, the answer was obvious—when Coltrane was playing, he just got out of the way!

I think the key for aspiring artists is, don’t make a record in isolation. Think about who you want to market it to, how you want to get it played, then find a story people want to write about. A new jazz CD that recently crossed my desk is a tribute to Pink Floyd—that concept got my attention. One of the most successful singers in Canada right now is Sophie Milman. She’s got a great story to tell. She was born in Russia, raised in Israel, and now she’s singing her heart out in Canada. The people writing about her are maximizing that—it’s show business!

That’s what it is! I don’t know when it became vulgar to think about entertainment as show business. You’re asking people to spend their money and their time listening to you.

Some of the musicians I admire most really get that. Cyrus Chestnut, for example. Watch him in concert, listen to his recordings, talk to him—he gets marketing. His tribute to Elvis says that loud and clear. Steve Turre is like that too, and lots of others.

Sometimes I’d like to be a bug on your shoulder—you keep great company!

I’m extremely grateful for the opportunities I’ve had. I get to make a full-time living playing jazz—not the way you play it, but…

You’re following your passion, your dream. You’re as important as any great jazz artist because you’ve brought the art form to so many people and made it accessible without selling it out. That’s commendable.

I’ve been really fortunate to work with a lot of good people along the way. My years at CBC in Winnipeg were crucial—Kinsey Posen, Wes Wilson, Tom Anniko, John Bertrand, Peggy Ingram. And of course Izzy Asper. Izzy’s picture hangs by the door of my office—I wouldn’t be the CEO at Jazz.FM91 if it weren’t for him. My time with him was like going to the Harvard School of Business! I’m eternally grateful to him for showing me the balance between art and commerce.

Are you still in your dream job?

Absolutely! To be able to run a stand-alone jazz station in the largest market in Canada? We’re a niche station but my goodness we’re doing well. 320,000 people. They say cultures are defined by how they treat the arts, and I have to say that Torontonians’ response to the station has been great.

My jazz glass is half full, not half empty. Sure, there can always be growth, but I’m very happy with how jazz is being received in this country. The inferiority complex that seems to accompany this music can be self-perpetuating, and I really resist that. My time in Winnipeg (which still feels like home) was so good, and I wake up happy every day to be the CEO of Jazz.FM91. My experiences with jazz in this country have been nothing but positive.

So what do we have to do to get you back here to the Jazz Capital of Canada?

I don’t know, Steve—never say never! I’d love to teach…

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