There was probably little evidence that a myth was in the making that night in 1980-something at Highland, but this would go down as a high school talent show for the ages: Two future arena-thumping rock stars competing alongside a preacher’s son who one day would win international acclaim for his jazz music.
Sunday, Highland alums Jonathan Davis and Reginald “Fieldy” Arvizu of Korn and jazz star Gregory Porter will compete once again — not against each other this time — on a stage a little grander than what they’re used to up on Royal Scots Road in northeast Bakersfield. The three are nominees at the 59th Annual Grammy Awards, which will be broadcast live from the Staples Center in Los Angeles at 5 p.m. on CBS.
Porter, who, like Korn has already scored Grammy gold for past efforts, had to admit that being nominated with his heavy-metal classmates is pretty amazing.
“Years ago, I was in New York City, just at the beginning of my career, and I happened to be at this hotel and they were at the height of their first record, or maybe second record — something like that. Anyways, they were walking past and I was like, ‘I know those guys! I went to school with those guys!’ I was even in a talent show with those guys, a couple of ‘em, in a Highland High School talent show.
“This is a little big town, and 20, 30 years ago it definitely had a small-town vibe. For us both to be nominated and coming from (here), you know … it’s pretty cool. It feels good.”
And not just coming from here anymore, at least in Porter’s case. The caramel-smooth baritone, 45, has moved back to the town where his mother ran a series of storefront churches in southeast Bakersfield, the town whose gospel music so indelibly left its mark that those Sunday-morning influences can still be heard in his work.
“I’ve taken all the experiences, both the good and the bad, that I’ve had here in Bakersfield and put it into my music and telling it to the world, you know?
“Now that I’ve moved back to Bakersfield, I’m definitely taking the energy of this place (and) my family’s history here and taking it to places all over the world; from jazz clubs in Harlem to the Royal Albert Hall with the queen in attendance. I am carrying in a way the light and the songs and the style that my mother gave to me here in Bakersfield.”
Porter’s 2013 release, “Liquid Spirit,” won him the Grammy Award for best jazz vocal album. He’s up for the same award today for his album “Take Me to the Alley.”
“It feels great to be recognized again for another record,” Porter said by phone recently. “I’m still in kind of pinch-myself mode so it’s amazing for me. The cool thing about this record is that a lot of it is close to home — close to Bakersfield.”
Porter’s confident phrasing and skillful melodic delivery allow for delicate emotional subtleties, especially on the songs “More than a Woman” and the title track from “Take Me to the Alley,” both of which are dedicated to his mother, Ruth, and her ministry work. She passed away from breast cancer in 1992. Porter was 21 years old.
“My mother’s sermons, in a funny way, are throughout all four of my records, so I’m not trying to get away from it. At the point … I decided to accept the sound that I developed and cultivated, that kind of Southern gospel sound that was prominent when I was growing up — and still is — in the churches here in Bakersfield. Once I started to meld that into my jazz stylings is when the success started to happen for me.”
And Porter isn’t finished being inspired by his hometown.
“There’s some history here that I’d like to dig up if I can. There’s working-class people here: black working class, white working class, Mexican working class. I’m curious to, you know, what the songs were from those black men that used to pitch watermelons when I was a kid. I want to know what their music was, you know? This is a rich, cultured community and I want to see what it’s about.”
Though Porter is on the road 300 days a year — and usually an ocean away, in Europe — his Bakersfield home is his sanctuary, in a way that the cramped East Coast apartment he gave up never was.
“My son is being raised here, and my wife is here and I bought a house here. So it’s all a new experience for me. We’ve been here just about a year.
“I’ve found quite a bit of peace and relaxation. I found property that suits me perfectly, so it works. ... I was in a little tiny apartment in New York City (thinking): ‘You know what? I want a big space and a big table and my family sitting at the table.’ So, yeah, I made it happen and it feels great. It’s amazing having 40 people in your house for Christmas. It’s cool.”
Though Porter has made high-profile appearances here in the States on morning and late-night television (“Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” among others), the reality is that jazz is far more popular in Europe, which is why he spends about half the year there.
“It doesn’t matter where you’re coming from if your expression is soulful and from the heart and real, and I think that’s the way most people listen to music.
“You put on a little Marvin Gaye, and then you put on a little hip-hop, then you put on a little — maybe if you’re really expansive — you put on some country and then some classical music. That’s the way I listen to music. So, yeah, it’s been cool to be in that kind of a thing. Yeah, it happens in Europe, but it happens here as well.”