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The Life and Music of Art Porter, Sr.

Art Porter, Sr. was a pianist, composer, conductor, and music teacher. Though best known as a jazz musician, he also performed classical compositions and spirituals. Porter was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame in 1994 and the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame in 1996.

Child prodigy. Jazz luminary. Classical virtuoso. Beloved teacher. Prolific composer. Arkansas treasure.

That’s Art Porter, Sr. This jazz and classical powerhouse performed for Arkansas governors, U.S. presidents, and heads of state.

Art Porter’s story begins on February 8, 1934 when he was born in Little Rock. The second of two children, he began his music education at home with his mother, who quickly noticed his talent. At age eight, he was playing at his family’s church. At twelve, he performed his first classical recital. By age fourteen, he was a seasoned musician, performing for community activities and hosting his own 30-minute classical radio program on KLRA-AM in Little Rock.

He came to Pine Bluff to go to college, eventually earning 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 Arkadelphia in 1975.

Porter began his teaching career at Mississippi Valley State University in Itta Bena, Mississippi, 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, New York.

Porter returned to Little Rock in the late 1950s and spent the next twelve years teaching vocal music at the high school and college level. 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 performed with the Art Porter Trio during a two-week stay in Hot Springs. Other entertainers, such as Liberace, Julius La Rosa, and Art Van Dam, often dropped by to join in and enjoy the trio’s music. Later on, Governor Bill Clinton, at the time a huge fan and friend of Porter, often joined Porter’s group on his saxophone.

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, and Porterhouse Cuts, a syndicated series shown in a thirteen-state area in the South.

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, allowing Porter’s children to perform with him throughout the state.

Porter died on July 22, 1993. He was eulogized at Bethel AME Church, where he was the organist for thirty-five years. A newspaper article noted that Porter’s “natural gifts” were “polished by intelligence, flawless phrasing and good taste…with modesty.”

His life and his music continue to inspire generations.

Learn more about Art Porter’s life and legacy in Art Porter, A Music Treasure, a documentary produced by Arkansas PBS.


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