Bring in the New Year with a Smile
By Joy Childs
Sentinel Contributing Writer
There’s not a time that you see Barbara Morrison that she doesn’t greet you with a pleasant, warm smile-whether it’s doing an interview or belting out the blues. So if want to bring in the new year right but you don’t want to stay home or drive too far, check out Morrison’s New Year’s Eve party at The Proud Bird. She’ll have her backup band, the BU Crew; tenor saxophonist Houston Person; the Sai Whatt Band; and former Tower of Power lead Lenny Williams.
Morrison, who’s an Ypsilanti, MI, native (that’s 36 miles from Detroit), is excited about it all: The doors open at 7 p.m., and the party favors and fun start at 8. Of course, she’ll be singing soulful standards as well as tunes from her two recent CD’s, “By Request Volume 1″ (jazz) and By Request Volume 2” (blues). But it’s not she who’ll be singing when the new year comes in. That distinction goes to Williams, who will be doing “I Didn’t Know That Was Your Mama.” You gotta love it!
Many jazz lovers know of Morrison’s work with Ray Charles may not know of her stints with Dizzy Gillespie, Ron Carter, Etta James, Tony Bennett and Gerald Wilson. She taught jazz classes alongside Wilson before he retired from UCLA, where she still works. Well known and extremely popular in the Los Angeles area, she’s also toured extensively and performed to great success throughout the country, in Western Europe, especially Scotland, and the Far East and Australia.
It’s no wonder that she counts Ella and Dinah among her role models. But she also credits WCHB, which she noted in a recent interview was the first black broadcast company in the nation, and her father as her earliest influences: “My father was a singer, and he would buy those big 78s. And Stevie Wonder and I are the same age, so I had him . . . and Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross . . . Smokey …they were starting Motown. And Chicago’s only 269 miles away . . . so we had the Chi-Lites . . . and remember The Three Degrees from Philadelphia?”
She was, as she says, immersed in a melting pot of all the African American artists right there in Detroit, so she “had a chance to hear all those influences . . . and not only that, [there was] Lee Morgan, Miles and all them on the East Coast. And WCHB could get the signal [from New York] so we could get the jazz too. . . And then when FM radio came in, it was all over! We had jazz and blues . . .”
Usually artists who more than competently sing both jazz and blues are reluctant to state a preference. But after first explaining that people used to ask her, ‘How you gon’ be a blues singer coming from Ypsilanti, MI?,’ and I tell them, ‘You go to Ypsilanti-and you will get the blues!,” she explains that she tends toward the blues because of the feeling it allows her to express and connect with the audience. And anyone who’s seen her-whether fronting a big band, or with her own band, or at a private celebration knows that Morrison is the consummate entertainer, often interacting, joking and teasing her audiences; much like her dear friend, the late drummer Billy Higgins, she’s smiling all the while singing.
Active in the community, she’s established the Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center at 4305 Degnan Boulevard, Suite 101, in Leimert Park, proudly showing visitors its many features, which include an outdoor grassy knoll: “At the center, we have classes for the children, and we rent it out.” In fact, at the time of interview, the Center was playing host for a Congresswoman Maxine Waters brunch, with Assemblyman Mike Davis in attendance. He even showed off his surprisingly good singing skills.
Morrison has a series of productions at the top of the new year, including “Happy Birthday, Milt Jackson,” featuring Andre Earles and Houston Person in January, while in February, there’s “Black History in Jazz,” honoring Billy Eckstine, Louis Armstrong, Louis Bellson and Duke Ellington.
Until then, though, The Proud Bird is where you oughta be on Friday, December 31.