Black Pioneers: Art Porter Sr.

Art Porter on an instrument
Photo courtesy of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Central Arkansas Library System

Arthur Lee (Art) Porter Sr. was born on this day in 1934. Referred to as an “Arkansas treasure,” Porter was a pianist, composer, conductor and music teacher. Though best known as a jazz musician, he also performed classical compositions and spirituals, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas

Art Porter was born in Little Rock to Eugene Porter Sr., a stonemason, and Lillie Mae Porter. He was the younger of two children. Porter began his music education at home with his mother. He played in church at age eight; played his first recital at 12; andhosted a half-hour classical music radio program on KLRA-AM by 14.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in music from Arkansas AM&N College (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff) in May 1954. He married Thelma Pauline Minton on June 10, 1955. They spent their honeymoon in graduate study at the University of Illinois in Urbana in 1955. Porter continued his graduate study at the University of Texas at Austin in 1974 and earned a master’s degree in music from Henderson State University in 1975.

Porter began his teaching career at Mississippi Valley State University in Itta Bena, Miss. in 1954 immediately after college graduation. After two years, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. His extraordinary musical talent on the organ and piano, along with his extensive repertoire of church music, was immediately recognized during his basic training. Consequently, he spent the next two years as a chaplain’s assistant in Fort Niagara, N.Y.

Porter returned to Little Rock in the late 1950s and spent the next 12 years teaching vocal music at Horace Mann High School, Parkview High School, and Philander Smith College. 

Porter supplemented his income by playing piano jazz in the evenings, sometimes as a single but most of the time with his group, the Art Porter Trio. The trio was in great demand, especially for weddings, country club affairs, and city and state social affairs. Singer Tony Bennett, during a two-week stay in Hot Springs, sat in with the Art Porter Trio and performed every night. Other entertainers, such as Liberace, Julius La Rosa, and Art Van Dam, often dropped by to join in and enjoy the trio’s music.

By 1971, Porter’s popularity was soaring. From 1971 to 1981, he hosted The Minor Key, a musical talent showcase on the Arkansas Educational Television Network (now Arkansas PBS), and Porterhouse Cuts, a syndicated series featuring the Art Porter Trio that was shown in a thirteen-state area in the South. Porter was approached many times to tour, but he declined. As he once said, “I don’t like to travel, especially all the time.” He made a couple of exceptions to travel in 1977 to the World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture in Lagos, Nigeria, and in 1991 with his son, jazz saxophonist Art Porter Jr., to jazz festivals in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Despite Porter’s popularity as a jazz pianist, he found time to pursue his interest in classical music. He was featured as a guest artist on piano as he performed with both the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra in Little Rock and the Northwestern Symphony Orchestra in Fort Smith. In 1976, Porter organized his former vocal music students as the Art Porter Singers to perform Handel’s Messiah at the Bethel AME Church in Little Rock. 

Porter’s music found continued expression in the performances of four of his children in their group Benkenartreg, Inc. The name is composed of the first three letters of each of the members’ names: Benita, Kenneth, Art Jr., and Reginald. A fifth child, Sean Porter, also inherited his father’s talent on organ and piano. Porter’s musical legacy was passed on to Art Jr., whose career, expressed in four albums, ended with his accidental death on November 23, 1996.

Though Porter received many honors and awards, he found particular satisfaction in the “Art Porter Bill” enacted by the state legislature, which allowed minors to perform in clubs while under adult supervision. Porter’s children thus were able to perform with him throughout the state. Governor Bill Clinton, at the time a huge fan and friend of Porter, often joined Porter’s group on his saxophone.

Porter died of lung cancer on July 22, 1993. He was eulogized at Bethel AME Church, where he was the organist for thirty-five years. He is buried at Little Rock National Cemetery. He was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.