Barbara Morrison, photo courtesy Erica Zora Wrightson

Conversation with Barbara Morrison

June 23, 2016
Erica Zora Wrightson, Managing Editor

In her own words, Barbara Morrison is “kinda hardcore.” The 66-year-old Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist and educator has played with scores of musicians, including Johnny Otis, Gerald Wilson, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, Etta James, Jimmy Smith, Dr. John, Joe Sample, Cedar Walton, Nancy Wilson, Joe Williams, and Keb' Mo. Morrison has recorded in six countries and has taught ethnomusicology at UCLA for two decades. In the last few years, she lost both of her legs to diabetes, but has refused to let that slow her down. In 2008, she founded the Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center (BMPAC) in Leimert Park—a performance and practice space—where she teaches weekly voice classes to students of all ages and where, this summer, she’ll star in a jazz musical about Dinah Washington called “I Wanna Be Loved.”

Morrison is clearly loved. In 2011, after losing her first leg, musician friends including Frank Capp Juggernaut, Ernie Andrews, Corky Hale, Tierney Sutton, and Junior Mance organized a benefit for the famously generous musician to help pay for her medical bills. On an afternoon last month in Leimert Park, neighbors stopped to chat with her while she sipped a cup of coffee at the sidewalk café next to her center. The BMPAC was full of students—it’s available to kids in the Harmony Project, a nonprofit music outreach program, to practice in after school—and solfege and long tones floated out of the open doors onto Degnan Boulevard. We had limited time to speak—Morrison was attending the memorial service of one of her students later that afternoon—but she managed to share a significant life history, including memories of growing up in Michigan, early musical influences, performance experiences, and relationships with her many talented friends, like Nina Simone.

Below is a condensed transcript of the interview, as well as an audio vignette of our conversation and her music. (Audio edited and produced by Max Wrightson, all music by Barbara Morrison: "River's Invitation" and "At Last" from Barbara Morrison, "Hit the Road Jack" from Live at the 9:20 Special, and "Sunny Side of the Street" from A Sunday Kind of Love)

Erica Zora Wrightson: This is Erica Zora Wrightson and I am in Leimert Park at the Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center with Barbara Morrison herself on June 9, 2016, in the afternoon. Barbara, I’m very happy to be here today, thank you for taking the time to do this interview.

Barbara Morrison: Thank you for being here.

EZW: And we’re really looking forward to your performance at LACMA at the end of the month.

BM: Yeah, I’m excited about it.

EZW: You’ve performed at LACMA before—

BM: Years ago, when it first started.

EZW: That’s great. This is the 25th anniversary of Jazz at LACMA, so it’s been around for a while now. If you don’t mind, I’d like to ask you to say your name, where and when you were born, and tell me a little bit about your early life.

BM: My name is Barbara Morrison. I was born in Ypsilanti, Michigan….My mother was a nurse and my father was a Chevy factory worker. … Everyone worked at the Motor City in Detroit, and he was no different, but he was also a great baseball player and a great singer. He had a doo-wop group and sang at church—he made us go to church every Sunday. 

My father was in the army; when he left, my mother was pregnant with me, and he made her promise to wait for him. And when he got out of the service he said he would buy us a house and I’d have a nice happy childhood. However, my mother fell on hard times; she gave me away. When my father came home he looked for me and looked for me and he found me and found my mother and did exactly what he said he was going to do. He bought a house and we all grew up in the same house—me and my brothers and sisters. …

My family is still very close…. It’s all because of my father. When I graduated from high school, I wanted to stay home because my mother was pregnant. But I had a scholarship to Eastern Michigan, and he said “Baby, do me a favor. Let them see you go. Let them see you go to college. They’re not gonna stand for that. They’re gonna go too.” And he was right. All my brothers and sisters graduated from college. …

And I moved to California and started my career. My father always wanted me to be a singer. And I wanted to be a singer because he was a singer. And of course I was daddy’s little girl. … Then my parents died really young. My mother died first and my father died second. Like months apart…. When I made my first record, which was Back to Jazz: Introducing Barbara Morrison my father was so, so happy. I hope I didn’t kill him because he died shortly afterwards [laughs].

EZW: Tell me a little bit about the music that you heard growing up. You said your dad was a singer—what was he singing?

BM: Are you kidding? Anything he could get his hands on. He was in a doo-wop group. His doo-wop group used to rehearse in the kitchen and my doll house was under the kitchen table. So I picked up all these songs—didn’t know where they came from—and I would sing them just like they rehearsed them. And they used to laugh at me—they thought that was so funny. And he used to play a lot of Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughn. He was so eclectic; he liked every kind of music.

But when he came home from the war he had a drinking problem. And my mother used to play Lee Morgan’s “Sidewinder” every time he made it home with his paycheck. She put on Lee Morgan and we’d all get in a circle and dance [sings] “Bop, bop, Daddy came home with his paycheck, bop bop.” Because sometimes he wouldn’t make it home; he’d spend his whole paycheck down on the corner drinking wine with his friends. …

He had a piano in our house. …We had a Methodist church that they made me go to until I was about twelve, and then they let me go to any church I wanted to go to, and that’s when I joined the Baptist church and I learned a lot of Christian songs from the Baptist church because I was in the choir. …

But anyway, I stayed here [in California] and stayed with the Johnny Otis orchestra for 21 years and then joined Ray Charles’s orchestra and stayed in it and Doc Severinsen’s orchestra—both at the same time—for seven years. And I started doing stuff on my own. I met the May brothers and we worked at the Loews hotel for about 16 years and then they moved away from the area, so I started experimenting myself. Signed with the record company High Note and I’m still with them today. …

I spent a lot of time educating myself. And right now I’ve been at UCLA since '96, teaching in the ethnomusicology department. I’ve seen a couple of my students get Grammys...—I do feel that every time somebody achieves, someone that came my way, that I’m a part of it—like a proud mother.

I have so many wonderful students. I show them everything I know, which I think is a good thing because I get a chance to see myself in other people and it makes me feel real proud too, that they go out and accomplish and—they learn how to read and communicate. I think the biggest and most important thing for a singer is to be able to communicate with the musicians and to be able to express themselves and let them know what they want and talk to them in musical terms. And I think that makes a successful singer. And same with the musicians—If you find the most successful musicians know the words to the songs that the singers sing and their inflections are just a little more advanced than some that don’t know the words and vice versa….


See Barbara Morrison perform live at Jazz at LACMA tomorrow, June 24, at 6 pm.