Art Porter Jr., on sax, and Art Porter Sr., on keyboard playing at the Governor’s Mansion, along with Reginald Porter, drums, and Thomas East.
photography by Janet Warlick and courtesy of APME, Downing
Last summer, organizers of the Art Porter Music Education (APME) Foundation honored the lives and talent of Art Porter Sr. and Art Porter Jr. with a week of events — concerts and jam sessions featuring some of the country’s most talented and renowned jazz entertainers, including Alex Bugnon, Jeff Lorber and Lelah Hathaway. This year, July 30 through Aug. 4, the APME board of directors hopes to top last year’s events, continuing to build the Porter legacy.
The Porter family legacy is one steeped not only in music but education as well.
“Both of my parents were educators,” Benita Porter Browning said. “Higher education was not an option or a discussion. Education and church were the center of our family.” Art Sr. earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees and taught music on the university-level for a time, and wife Thelma Pauline Porter taught intermediate school and later became a librarian. They had five children, four of whom formed a band and for a number of years performed at schools, churches and other community events. Art Jr. went on to become a successful, in-demand musician. He and Art Sr. performed at Pres. Clinton’s inauguration. In fact, Clinton was a family friend, and under his tenure as Arkansas’ attorney general, helped pass a bill, the Art Porter Bill, allowing underage musicians, accompanied by a parent, to play in adult facilities.
When Art Sr., who was once called “a state treasure,” died in July 1993, Art Jr. and his mother established the Art Porter Sr. Music Education Foundation in 1994 to honor his father’s memory. Following Art Jr.’s death, at 35, in a 1996 boat accident, and his wife’s death in 2001, the foundation’s fundraising activities were suspended.
“We didn’t want the foundation to become defunct, however, with Art’s and Barbi’s deaths, raising the children became first priority,” Browning said. Browning serves as the foundation’s executive director. Now that the children have matured, the family and friends have once again turned their attention to benefitting others, a mission held dear by Art Sr. Last year, Browning, and the man she describes as the driving force for APME, Sterling Ingram, and the board decided to revive APME.
Prior to 2011, the foundation raised funds during one event with one national recording artist. Last year, the organizers relaunched their efforts with an entire week of events, at various venues, featuring local and national artists as well as music students paired with professionals.
One such student is Lexington Porter, a violinist, and Art Sr.’s grandson. He, Art III who lives in Tennessee and plays the saxophone as well as Arrington who lives in Chicago and plays piano, continues the family’s legacy of musical talent.
Lexington graduated from high school this spring and will pursue a degree in music. Browning said he is the only family member who has chosen to pursue music as a career. He was introduced to the violin by an elementary teacher.
“Lexington didn’t want to play initially. Now he’s so glad that my mother made him practice — he’s really grateful for the gift,” Browning said.
“I feel my musical family, past and present, around me when I perform,” Lexington said. “Whenever I feel overwhelmed or unsure, it is my grandfather’s presence that is particularly strong, and I can feel him guiding me through my uncertainties.”
He has also followed in his grandfather’s footsteps of giving back to others. He recently presented a violin to Karson Bone, a Little Rock elementary school student. APME heard of Karson’s attachment to the instrument through his school counselor. After being introduced to the violin, he began carrying a laminated likeness of the instrument with him everywhere.
“I didn’t realize, I’d get so much pleasure from working with younger children. I can see myself in them, and there is a musical understanding between us,” Lexington said.
Lorenzo Smith, music instructor, gives Karson lessons free of charge. “Karson is inspired. Initially, Lorenzo was skeptical, he’s offered free lessons to many students over the years and not many stick with it, but Karson won him over. He’s just incredible. He was excited about receiving the instrument, and at his first lesson with Lorenzo, he said, ‘I remember everything Lexington taught me,’” Browning said.
Karson will perform during the APME weeklong celebration. The budding musician is just one who owes a debt to a Porter. Browning said, “The musicians who take part [in A Work of Art] donate their time and talent. So many of them knew Art Jr. and Dad. They’ve said they’re honored to be a part. ‘We sat at your father’s feet … he mentored us. We owe him thanks, and because of Art Jr. so many of us played in clubs when we were young.’”
During the APME’s first tenure, they awarded scholarships to five college-bound students. Monies raised last year and this will build that fund, and Browning said they plan to resume the awards next year. “We hope to give more scholarships in larger amounts. That’s our purpose … to carry out Dad’s dream, so the more we give, the happier we’ll be.”
For more information log onto artporter.org or visit their Facebook page under Art Porter Music Education.
Events during A Work of Art 2012
“Minors in Music”
Noon, July 30
Little Rock City Hall
Art Porter Music Institute participants, including Karson Bone, perform.
“Noonday Jazz with Minors in Music”
Noon, July 31
Metropolitan Bank Plaza
Art Porter Music Institute participants perform.
“A Jazz Reunion with James Leary”
7 p.m., 9 p.m., Aug. 1
Concert featuring James Leary, bassist, Count Basie Band, local musicians and Central High All-Region Jazz Band bassist Kaleb Greene; $20 per person.
“Porter Players Jam Session”
7 p.m., Aug. 2
Local musicians pay tribute to the “Arts”; free admission.
“Keys on the River featuring Alex Bugnon”
6 p.m., 9 p.m. Aug. 3
The House Band will open and at 9 p.m., renowned pianist and composer Alex Bugnon will be the featured artist playing with local and regional musicians; $25 per person.
“A Jazzy Affair featuring Will Downing”
7 p.m., Aug. 4
Clear Channel Metroplex
Evening includes opening act Fingerprints with special guest violinist Lexington Porter and concert with famed jazz and R&B vocalist Will Downing.