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Barbara Morrison: Songs from a survivor

May 17, 2013|By Jonny Whiteside
  • On her new CD, "A Sunday Kind of Love," Barbara Morrison mixes coolly communicative passion with plenty of steam-heated soul. She appears at May 26 at Joe's Great American in Burbank.
On her new CD, "A Sunday Kind of Love," Barbara… (Courtesy of Savant…)

While Barbara Morrison's 1973 arrival to the jazz and blues party was somewhat late, the singer has definitely lived it to the hilt. One of Los Angeles' top jazz vocalists, Morrison made her bones on the bandstand alongside the top names in music, performing with everyone from Johnny Otis to Ray Charles, Mel Torme and Dizzy Gillespie. But Morrison, who appears at Burbank's Joe's Great American Bar & Grill on May 26, remains an unassuming, modest and very down-to-earth character.

"I wasn't even into jazz until I moved to California," the 60-year-old Morrison said recently. "I'm from the Detroit area and grew up listening to a lot of Motown. And when I first got here, I was singing in a rock band called L.A. Smog Control. But I heard about an audition for a night club performer's job, at the Rubaiyat on Pico and Western. Everyone there was old enough to be my parents, but they were also playing the best music I'd heard in my life — and somehow I won the post."

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The Rubaiyat was one of the most historic, and prestigious, jazz and R&B clubs in South Central Los Angeles with the popular Blue Mondays headlined by legendary saxophonist Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson and able cohorts the Blevins brothers. Here, Morrison's life was transformed.

"I was just drawn to it." she said. "Here I was, just a 21-year-old kid hanging out with these 70-year-olds, all of them were stars from the old days. At the time, I didn't even know who they were, but they'd start drinking and telling these great stories about Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington, all the people who came before me. And it was rich, a very rich experience."

Morrison's vocals, as heard on her superb new CD, "A Sunday Kind of Love" (Savant), mix coolly communicative passion with artful, luxurious phrasing and plenty of steam-heated soul. It's a winning combination that's taken her from local cocktail lounges to Carnegie Hall, major European Jazz festivals and onstage at her own Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center, a thriving cultural hub in Leimart Park that is just about to celebrate its fifth anniversary. There, Morrison regularly performs her acclaimed theatrical show, "I Wanna Be Loved: Stories of Dinah Washington, Queen of the Blues," and hosts the nationally recognized children's music education program, the Harmony Project, along with jam sessions and a variety of live jazz events.

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