Barbara Morrison: A Room of Her Own, for Others

Singer opens jazz performing arts and education center in Los Angeles

Barbara Morrison
Barbara Morrison
Barbara Morrison with Chick Corea and Carlos Santana
Carlos Santana and Barbara Morrison

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Jazz singer Barbara Morrison says that she was growing tired of what she was seeing in her neighborhood of Leimert Park in Los Angeles. “It was awfully painful seeing these kids not having anywhere to go and learn their craft,” says Morrison. “That was really painful to me.” So she took matters into her own hands and opened a small performing arts and education center on Jan. 27, 2011.

The Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center is no Jazz at Lincoln Center in size and scope, but it is having an impact on the local community and on the singer herself. “Lots of hard work is starting to pay off in ways which will, in the long term, broaden our economic base,” said Brenda Shockley, president of Community Build, in the Los Angeles Times earlier this year. “The Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau designated the village as a recommended destination. Our vision: a robust intersection of commerce and African-American art and culture, for the community and the city to build on.”

Located in the Leimert Park area of Los Angeles, the center is taking an active part in the rebuilding process for the local community. “We’re down the street and across the street from the World Stage, founded by the late Billy Higgins,” says Morrison, proudly. “We’re at the corner of 43rd and Degnan Boulevard.” Although the performing space inside is a little small (capacity of under 100), there is a huge park outside that can hold more than 300 people. “When it warms up a little more, we’ll start up our summer concert series,” Morrison explains. “We have an upstairs recording studio where you can put together a promo package to send it out for work. A lot of musicians don’t have press kits or EPKs. They’re behind the times, like me. We’re just trying to keep the musicians and people working on their craft up-to-date. “

Los Angeles is Morrison’s adopted home. She was born and raised in the Detroit area and she recorded her first appearance for radio in Detroit when she was just 10. “I’m from a little town named Romulus between Detroit and Ann Arbor. It was called Wayne at the time. I moved to Los Angeles in 1973.” Over the years, she has toured and sang with a virtual who’s who of jazz and blues, including Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, James Moody, Ron Carter, Etta James, Esther Phillips, Jimmy Smith, Johnny Otis, Dr. John, Kenny Burrell, Terence Blanchard, Joe Sample, Cedar Walton, Nancy Wilson, Mel Torme, Joe Williams, Tony Bennett and Keb’ Mo’. She also was a guest vocalist with the Count Basie Orchestra, the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra and Doc Severinsen’s Big Band. And she’s released several records of her own.

“Jazz is an international language for me,” Morrison explains. “I go to Australia, Japan, Thailand and all over the world. I was taught that as a kid. If you do this [learn to sing jazz], you can work all over the world. I had one guy tell me if you have a big-band book, you can work all over the world. And guess what, I have recorded in just about every country I’ve played in.”

And in recent years, she’s become increasingly active as an educator. “I’ve been on a world tour for like forty years,” she says, laughing. “I’ve been traveling from country to country to country. I see all these fabulous young kids everywhere I go.” However, it was the kids she saw in her neighborhood in all its diversity that eventually moved her to action. “These kids are like sponges. They don’t want to just stay stuck in their own place. Some of these kids are speaking five or six languages. It’s such a diverse community out there.”

Education programs are very much an essential part of Morrison’s mission with the center. “The vocal classes are done by me,” she explains. “Our saxophone teacher is Keisha Potter from UCLA. We’re just having a ball, going around the community and grabbing up kids. The youngest one we have is a 6-year-old and she’s singing her [butt] off!”

In part because of connections made during her travels, Morrison also has various groups that come from afar for training at her center. “I have about 20 students from Japan coming over in April to do their own showcase. They’re coming to this African-American community to do their thing, can you imagine that? There are five of us who work with students who come in.”

It is of course a performing arts center, and live shows are also an important part of the programs there. Shortly before she spoke with JT, she had presented Marcus Belgrave doing a tribute to Louis Armstrong, and after that the center hosted a salute to Duke Ellington with a cast of prominent singers from the area and a band of veterans from the Chess and Motown labels. “Our shows have been selling out,” she says. “And we’re in an area where the rent isn’t so high that we can’t make it. I’m just doing my job. It’s on my back right now, until I can get into a position to get support and funding.”

Fortunately, Morrison is a relentlessly upbeat person who is undaunted by the challenges of opening a center for jazz in an inner-city neighborhood. To her the glass is not only half-full, it’s about to be full. “Yes, it’s hard, but I’m trying to make it a community effort, where people will see that it’s a good thing and help us along. My non-profit status will be effect in a few weeks and we hope to generate funds through that.” Morrison notes that Ruth Price recently secured a large grant in order to find a home for her Jazz Bakery, but she’s not jealous about that development. “I always tell my female singers, ‘Hey, you ain’t no Aretha Franklin and Aretha Franklin ain’t you and you have no reason or right to be jealous of anybody. You get in there and do what you know how to do and don’t worry about what other people are doing.'”

Morrison has certainly been doing what she knows how to do. And it seems that local officials have taken notice. On the day Morrison spoke with us by phone, she was being honored at the Los Angeles City Hall for Black History Month.

I asked Morrison where she sees the center a year from now. “I’d like to be in a bigger building – a 200-seater. The area that we’re in, they want to call it the African Village because it has a lot of art galleries and shops. It’s like Soho.”

In the meantime, she soldiers on promoting shows, organizing workshops and connecting to the local community. “I’m having fun here. This is my new neighborhood and my new family. It’s been my base since 1973. When the lightbulb goes on inside a kid’s head, it makes you almost want to cry. That’s where I’m coming from. I want to let them express themselves.”

For more information about the Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center in Leimert Park, you can visit the singer’s website.