For Art’s Kids Sake

A Special Benefit
For Art’s Kids Sake
by Mark Ruffin

Art PorterChicago never really got to properly say goodbye to saxophonist Art Porter after he drowned on Lake Kwae in Thailand, nearly five years ago. There were tributes in Little Rock, Nashville and even in Los Angeles, but none in the town that made him a star.

Now, after the tragic death, in February, of his wife, Barbi Howlett-Porter, closure is being offered the Chicago jazz scene, in the form of an all-star concert Saturday, July 21st at the Park West, featuring Brenda Russell, Jeff Lorber, Peter White and others. As part of the JVC Jazz Festival, the For Art’s Kids Sake Trust will hold a benefit concert for the children of Art and Barbi Porter, with the proceeds going to the fund devoted totally to their education.

Just maybe after this show, Chicago’s once vibrant electric jazz scene will be rejuvenated, because it seems it died on the other side of the world with Porter. As evidence, all that needs to be offered are the memorable good times of the 80’s and early 90’s in Chicago at the now defunct Bulls, Oz and the Jazz Oasis. Even the music at the still open Cotton Club and the Backroom doesn’t seem to have that spark that was around when electric jazz made as much noise as the Chicago acoustic jazz scene does now.

In the early part of this era, bands led by Reginald T. McCants, Ghalib Ghallab, Judy Roberts, Henry Johnson and others, were packing in those aforementioned nightspots with music that foreshadowed the smooth jazz era. The advent of WNUA, smooth jazz radio. in the mid 80’s only fueled the fire, as Porter, Johnson, Fred Simon, Brian Culbertson, and even Ramsey Lewis were signed to major smooth jazz labels.

Two Chicagoans were then members of contemporary jazz’ biggest band, the Pat Metheny Group, and guitarists Michael Ross and Nick Colionne were getting national airplay with independent releases.Seemingly, the local contemporary jazz scene came crashing to a thud on November 23rd, 1996, when Porter died. Since then, as smooth jazz radio has grown, across the country. regional bands playing the music have spawned, creating various contemporary jazz hotspots, but, not in Chicago.

There are bands in Chicago playing live contemporary or smooth jazz, – Audley Reid, Detour, Sumo, and Bob Guthrie immediately come to mind- but none has created the kind of sizzle and buzz that had women standing in line at the Bulls to see Porter, or led a Verve Records executive into giving him a contract after a Cotton Club performance

At the time of his death, Porter wasn’t even living in Chicago anymore. Culbertson has left too, and Johnson has abandoned electric jazz altogether. Many jazz clubs don’t feature the music anymore, or are closed. And Lewis and Steve Cole are the only Chicagoans, living here, who are heard on our smooth jazz broadcast entrant. .

Ironically, there actually was a perceptible shift at WNUA right after Porter died. Totally unrelated, two days after his death. the long time program director at the smooth jazz station, Lee Hansen, resigned his position. Many in the Chicago local music scene would agree that the broadcasting of any adventurous music and local artists went with him. According to composer/producer Chris Cuben-Tatum, Porter was tiring of tepid smooth jazz.

Cuben-Tatum wrote the title track to Porter’s last album, Lay Your Hands On Me, and insisted that the saxophonist chose his tune because it bucked the smooth trend. In the interest of full disclosure, it must be revealed that Cuben-Tatum contacted this writer, because I am the executive producer and chief impetus of the “For Art’s Kids Sake” concert. He wanted the official web site, and since I was the man, he has now information at

I had no intention of sparking a revival in the Chicago contemporary jazz scene when this concert was initiated, but it’s a nice thought. The chance to give fans and musicians a chance for closure would have been a noble inspiration too, but truthfully, it’s only a recent revelation.

When I heard Barbi Porter had died, all I could think of were my three boys and their two boys, 11 year-old Art III, and 9 year-old Arrington,. The fact that he was 35 and she was 37 when they died consumed me. I even started making a list of which ones of my friends and/or colleagues would take action if something happened to me, and the mother of my children.

Five months later, after some serious begging, I have Jeff Lorber being joined by Brenda Russell. Peter White. Paul Jackson Jr,, Marion Meadows and a name saxophonist we can’t legally announce. Guitarist and former manager at the Bulls, Gerey Johnson, will lead the house band and among the members are Whalum’s bassist Mike Manson and Urban Knights keyboardist, Kevin Randolph.

Art Porter’s guitarist Allen Burroughs will make an appearance, as will his mother, Pauline Porter, and Barbi’s sister, Valerie Howlett.

If you can’t make the concert, check the web site for donation info. There’s also a free pre-concert party, Friday night, June 20th at the Metropole Room inside the Fairmont Hotel in Chicago