Barbara Morrison: Magic Lady of Jazz and Blues, 1949–2022

On March 16, 2022, the lights in the jazz world dimmed when singer, educator and arts activist Barbara Morrison passed due to complications from cardiovascular disease. She was beloved worldwide along with her hometowns of Ypsilanti, Romulus and Detroit.

She was born in Ypsilanti, Michigan, on September 10, 1949, and raised by a musical family in Romulus. Her mother was a strong Baptist church member, and her father a doo-wop singer. Barbara’s first professional appearance was on radio in Detroit on the legendary WCHB at age 10! Even then she knew what to do for personal satisfaction – sing! She sang throughout high school and into her college years at Eastern Michigan University where she was a cheerleader for the EMU Hurons. Her father told her to “go where the action is” if you want to make it in music. So, Barbara Morrison moved to Los Angeles in 1973 to pursue her dream on a grander scale. It didn’t take her long to create great musical relationships. Shortly after her arrival, she was the featured vocalist with jazz, blues and soul legends Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson and Johnny Otis. A great listener, adept learner and generous spirit, Barbara easily made jazz friends in Los Angeles including Teddy Edwards, Jimmy Smith, Kenny Burrell, Grady Tate, Leslie Drayton, Joe Sample, John and Jeff Clayton, Jeff Hamilton, Doc Severinsen and Terry Gibbs. She recorded and performed with these distinguished jazz musicians and many more. Her first recorded date was in 1977 with Johnny Otis and His Orchestra. 1984 was the first year Barbara led her own recording session: Love Is a Four-Letter Word with The Leslie Drayton Orchestra.

A key aspect of Barbara Morrison’s professional life was determination to define her own music – not to follow the dictates of record label directors or vagaries of popular trends. She remained true to her gospel, soul, blues and jazz roots. She believed in financial independence – working with many independent labels such as Chartmaker, Blue Lady, Fertility and her final recording, Warm & Cozy on Barbara Morrison Productions in 2021.

Barbara’s resolution to remain independent extended to her community. In 2009 she established the Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center in her Leimert Park neighborhood. In this space she brought all her efforts to fruition: her skills as a faculty member of the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, her knowledge as a seasoned studio professional, her business acumen and her native ability as an entertainer, mentor, leader and coach. The year 2011 yielded Barbara’s next project: The California Blues and Jazz Museum honoring the many contributions made by Californians to America’s unique musical art form. In 2020, UCLA established the Barbara Morrison Scholarship for Jazz. What an honor! The honor was richly deserved as Barbara shared the American passion for soul, integrity, originality on stages worldwide: from the Monterey, Long Beach and Playboy Jazz Festivals in California to the Montreux, Nice, Pori, North Sea, Sydney Opera House, Carnegie Hall Festivals to the Detroit Jazz Festival.

In 2014, Barbara Morrison appeared at the Detroit Jazz Festival as part of a Louis Armstrong Tribute conceived by Marcus and Joan Belgrave. This is where my fondest memories of Barbara Morrison come in. In 2013, Barbara Morrison invited Marcus and Joan to present their Louis Armstrong Revue in her Performing Arts Center. Marcus and Joan returned the favor by asking Barbara to return to her hometown to be part of a Louis Armstrong tribute at the 2014 Detroit Jazz Festival. Joan and Barbara joined me in the WEMU studio for a concert preview. What we didn’t know was that 2014 would be the year that a brief but violent storm would develop over the Detroit river, crashing stages and essentially ending the Detroit Jazz Festival hours early.

Barbara, Joan and Marcus presented their Louis Armstrong tribute on the Waterfront Stage. The following day, Barbara sang with pianist Tad Weed, bassist Kurt Krahnke and drummer Sean Dobbins on the Pyramid Stage. As soon as Barbara left the stage, the wind came up, the rain came down and the lightning struck, ending the outdoor festival. But the show went on. 2014 Festival Director Terri Pontremoli conferred with bassist Dave Holland and others who were willing to present a show in the Marriott Renaissance Volt Bar. We all crowded in respectfully, making room for as many bodies as possible. The jam and the music was magnificent. It was topped off by another appearance by Barbara Morrison leading us in a soulful jam from her wheelchair. By this time, Barbara was too tired to strap on the prosthetic leg she needed after losing one leg due to diabetes. Yet, Barbara was not too tired to get us all out of our seats and on our feet clapping to her blues-inflected jazz. I’d experienced Barbara Morrison at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, at The Bird of Paradise Jazz Club and other venues, but this was the pinnacle of jazz performance – in the moment and totally heartfelt. Barbara demonstrated to all that music will help you get through life’s travails and troubles.

After her 2014 Detroit Jazz Festival appearance, Barbara Morrison went on to present many more shows in Los Angeles, to teach at UCLA, to tour internationally and to record for the HighNote and Savant record labels with the legendary Houston Person — but for me, the night in the Volt Lounge was the essence of Ms. Morrison’s magic. If you’ve ever been touched by magic, you know how special the feeling and the moment is. Barbara Morrison was magical. Her essence now is magical among the stars.