This obituary was written by Sean J. O’Connell, a musician, writer, tour guide, and historian on jazz in Los Angeles. He is the author of “Los Angeles’ Central Avenue Jazz,” published by Arcadia.
Vocalist Barbara Morrison was the center square for the LA jazz bingo card for nearly half a century. Whether it was for the Friday night LACMA jazz gathering or on the Long Beach Municipal Band’s rickety mobile stage, Morrison was never less than a fully-committed performer, a coy MC with a rollickingly soulful sound that could purr on a gentle standard or growl when the band really got to rocking. Barbara Morrison died on March 16th at the age of 72 from cardiovascular disease.
“There were only two people in Los Angeles who could play seven days a week and people would show up and fill up the house,” said vocalist Dwight Trible about his late friend. Trible also serves as executive director of Leimert Park’s cultural mainstay The World Stage. “The other is Poncho Sanchez,” he noted. “If you can name anybody else who can do that, I want to hear it.”
Barbara Morrison grew up in the Detroit suburbs and was already performing on the radio by age ten. She found her way to Los Angeles in the early 1970s, working regularly with R&B bands across the southland. Bandleader Johnny Otis’ 1977 “Back to Jazz” album proudly declared on the cover it was “Introducing Barbara Morrison” who stands squinting in the sun between Otis and another R&B legend, saxophonist Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson. Gigs with the Count Basie Orchestra, Ray Charles and Jimmy Smith kept her busy and she built her success on that live performance reputation as radio success eluded her throughout her career.
Morrison was not only a master interpreter of Black American music but she also knew how to entertain. Ask any of the tens of thousands of people who heard her perform and they can attest to how natural she was with a microphone in her hand. Morrison was approachable but not without a set of retractable claws. Her knowledge of the classic American songbook was impeccable but she was also happy to sing a blues that was down and dirty with the occasional between song jokes about murdering husbands with poisoned mushrooms (She was not afraid to repeat her jokes!). If there was enough room in the venue, it was not uncommon for the electric slide to supplant a few tables. “She could do three gigs in a day from Palm Springs to LA,” exclaimed vocalist Cathy Segal-Garcia. “Even in recent years. She would just do it. She was travelling internationally still and running all of her Leimert Park events. It was incredible.”
Morrison was a fearless business woman until the very end. If she sensed an artistic need for her community, she wanted to contribute. Morrison’s Blue Lady Records released not only her recordings (which she often sold herself at gigs) but albums by local luminaries such as bassist Al McKibbon (which earned a Grammy nomination) and arranger Phil Wright. She produced an ambitious jazz festival at the Hollywood Park Casino that involved multiple stages and a wide array of performers. Rather than wait for someone else to produce her visions, she ambitiously tackled them herself, regardless of the hurdles.
The Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center stands proudly on Leimert Park’s Degnan Boulevard. The 99-seat theater was Morrison’s dream venue and its calendar was regularly filled with local artists as well as her own shows in tribute to her idols Dinah Washington and Linda Hopkins. But the performing arts center was not enough to contain Morrison’s ambition. She opened up the California Jazz & Blues Museum a few doors further down, closer to the World Stage. The storefront museum was a modest ode to local music history with concert posters on the walls, various instruments on display and paintings of local artists by local artists. It was a welcome addition to the Leimert Park landscape, a natural extension of the neighborhood’s Sankofa Passage, a series of brass plaques that recognize some of Morrison’s mentors including musicians Gerald Wilson and Buddy Collette. (The fate of both venues was already in question prior to Morrison’s passing. Segal-Garcia had set-up a GoFundMe in early March that had quickly surpassed its goal.)
Aside from filling the dance floor, Morrison also worked for decades in the jazz department at UCLA where she taught voice lessons. She was one of first hires made by then-director Kenny Burrell, her instinctual sense of song a valuable asset for the largely unexplored world of formal jazz education at the time. “Because of her vocal virtuosity and international name in the field, she has been one of our greatest examples to our students, who loved her teaching style and her personality,” said UCLA’s current chair of Global Jazz Studies, Dr. Steve Loza. (Plans are underway for the school to establish a memorial scholarship in Morrison’s honor.)
In the last decade of her life, throughout her most direct efforts to reinvigorate the Leimert Park arts community, Morrison faced numerous health setbacks that could very easily have derailed her passion and optimism. Both of her legs were amputated as a result of diabetes. She was confined to an electric wheelchair but never seemed to dampen in spirits. Even through the pandemic, she was gigging regularly in-person and through livestreams. The persevering example she set as a human being was as inspiring as the music she was creating.
“The one thing about Barbara, even when she had both of her legs amputated, she approached it with all of her might. All the way to the end. I saw her perform not too long before she went in the hospital. She was sounding just as good as she ever did. She was tried, trued and tested. She didn’t discriminate,” recalled Trible. “She’d play at a hole in the wall or Disney Hall. She didn’t have a thought that she was too good for a place. I think that’s why she was somebody who was undeniable. We have truly lost a giant.”