Chris Potter was born in Chicago, Illinois, but his family soon moved to Columbia, South Carolina, where he spent his formative years. Potter showed an early interest in a wide variety of different music and easily learned several instruments including the guitar and piano. He quickly realized after hearing Paul Desmond that the saxophone would be the vehicle that would best allow him to express himself musically.
He played his first professional jazz gig on alto sax at age thirteen after mastering the complex musical language of Charlie Parker. He developed a devoted local following while performing with the Columbia jazz musicians Johnny Helms and Terry Rosen, as well as with others in the jazz community.
After leaving Columbia upon his graduation from Dreher High School, Potter attended college in New York City, first at the New School, and later at the Manhattan School of Music. Upon his arrival in New York he began performing with Red Rodney and gained a reputation as a rising new star of the saxophone.