"Robert has always served this community with his music and with his tireless efforts; representing those who lacked a vehicle to acquire the basic necessities of life. He's bringing all these great old players out of the woodwork with his jam sessions. But as is the case for all of us (resident musicians) we often can't get sufficient gigs in our own area or receive the attention or recognition our efforts deserve.” pianist/educator Ed Kelly"
Instead of being recognized for his good works Robert Porter is now having his low income residence status reviewed because it is assumed that his Sunday night jam sessions at the Birdcage which have become the lifeblood of some stellar musicians is making him too wealthy. But this is not a sad story. Robert Porter is not a sad cat. He reminds me a little of Joe Frazier. No matter what you throw at him he keeps on coming, bobbing and weaving till he finds a way inside so he can start working on his adversary. It seems he was born into both a life of music and hard times.
“My mother ran a boarding house in Houston. All the musicians like Cab Calloway, Chick Webb and members of Basie’s band used to stay there when they came to town. So I grew up listening to all that beautiful music, blues and jazz. There was no separation between blues and jazz at that time that came later. The division was created by the record companies as a marketing ploy so they could sell more records. You’d even find players like Charlie Parker backing up blues cats. (Later on I befriended Jimmy Hendrix and whenever we’d play at the Coffee Gallery near Golden Gate Park. I’d invite him in to play bebop. He’d shine me on and start playing this outrageous blues guitar. People would start mobbing him. He knew all about breaking down barriers.)
As a boy I played in Henry Franklin’s band (father of Henry Franklin Jr. the famous Los Angeles bassist). We traveled through Sugar Land, Richmond and played in the Rice Hotel in Houston. White women used to hang all over his piano when he played, it wasn’t sexual the music just drew them. They ran us out of the Hotel; Houston was really racist at the time. Cab Calloway got run out of Houston for the same thing. They used to put a rope down the middle of the auditorium. One side for white and one side for black. Well once the music started the white audience said F*** It and crossed right over. That and the fact there would be white women grabbing for pieces of his clothes as he made his way out, got him run out of town. They were afraid of the influence he was exerting over the style of people's dress, the way they talked, even the way they walked.”
Robert was forced to make his own exodus a few years later. After serving his country and receiving a taste of the liberal social attitudes in Munich, he returned home to Houston. Home where there still was a law on the books to prevent reckless eyeballing of whites by blacks. His first altercation was precipitated by some unkind comments directed his way as he tried to cash his paycheck while in the company of two white German women. Then he made the mistake of crossing the Mason-Dixon Line on a bus.
“The first seat I saw was next to a rather overweight white gentleman. When I asked him politely to move he didn’t budge. Being young and just having fought a war I tried to push by him. He pushed me so I hit him. The reaction was immediate. The old ladies in the back screamed while some other passengers held open the door so I could make my escape, which included jumping over a number of fences. There were also great acts of kindness. Like when two white guys tried to run me off the shoulder of the road. Their car flipped over and before the dust cleared a white truck driver who had witnessed the accident pulled over and offered me a ride. He said, “Get in the cab! If those guys spot you they’ll hang you.” Picking up a black and giving him a ride in the cab was against all kinds of policies.”
Robert landed in Oakland in the late forties and quickly inserted himself into the jazz scene. Looking younger than his years he was able to find work playing with the various high school bands which formed around the local recreation centers such as DeFremery and San Pablo parks. The most popular bands would be hired to play dances. A program whose time may now have come again for the youth of Oakland.
"Late at night we'd go down to the strip on Seventh Street and hang out at the It Club and listen to the Mad Genius who used to play the hell out of the piano. Lionel Hampton who used to play at the Tandy Theater would drop by with 1 or 2 of his players and jam with the Mad Genius. T Bone Walker would be at the Swing Club while Slim Jenkins would be playing over at the Hideaway. It was Slim who really put Oakland on the map with his recording of The S.K. Blues and 7th Street Boogie. Charlie Parker and Dizzy sat in with Slim and the other blues musicians. Despite the fact San Francisco had the reputation, as a crossroads with all sorts of roadside attractions; Oakland was the place. The performers were always on this side of the bay or they would stop in transit. The war and the shipyards meant there was a lot of work to go around. Because of that Richmond had an entire scene of it's own. One of my big moments came when Billy Eckstine came to town with the great Art Blakey on drums. I was going to Candell's Conservatory with Pointy Poindexter and Smiley Winters. We already knew Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon who used to stay up here, but Billy's band with Gene Ammons was something else. Smiley and a bunch of us went down and Smiley sat in with the band. That was really something to see one of our guys with someone like that, it suggested that the possibilities were limitless.
My first regular gig was with Julius Jacquet, Illinois Jacquet's brother. I came to the gig by way of my wife Lucella Thomas who used to sing and play with him. I really thought I could play. I was wearing a goatee and a beret just like Dizzy. One night he asked me if I could play Body and Soul. After eight bars he stopped the band, gave me fifty dollars and told me to sit down. That was the most shocking thing that over happened to me. I couldn't play the melody. I wasn't relating to the changes, I was playing on pure emotion. To make things worse, I was kicked out of a band my girl was in. And being a young cat I was very leery about leaving here to spend her nights with a bunch of older musicians. So I went home and practiced non-stop for eight months till I was ready."