One year after revered songstress, vocal teacher and community activist Barbara Morrison’s passing at age 72, her legacy is humming along in full swing.
The City of Los Angeles has renamed the corner of 43rd Street and Degnan (where the Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center has stood for the past 14 years) “Barbara Morrison Square.” It was dedicated on the singer’s birthday last year, September 10, which also marked the date of the First Annual Barbara Morrison Jazz and Blues Festival.
An undeniable success in terms of attendance and in the spirit of community it generated, the festival will be followed by another this fall, which will coincide with the re-opening of the California Jazz and Blues Museum, an institution Morrison established in 2011 but was forced to close during the pandemic.
The dynamic and celebratory goings-on of the past year since her death is but a reflection of the expansive, joyous manner in which Morrison lived.
A native Detroiter who’d at a young age dreamt of joining Motown’s ranks, she ultimately found her musical home in Los Angeles in the 1970s, singing with the likes of Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie, Etta James, Nancy Wilson and the Count Basie Orchestra. It is here, in Los Angeles, namely Leimert Park, that she in turn provided a sacred space for scores of Angelenos who wished to partake of the arts.
She opened the Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center in 2009 with a vision of magnitude and magnanimity.
CEO of the Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center, Timothy Morganfield, who joined Morrison when the center was but an empty shell, stated, “It was a vision for a place almost [like] a community center for the community to have a place to go to, for everything from concerts to plays, to meetings, and music lessons.”
With his expertise as a builder who has constructed sets for high-profile musical acts, Morganfield (who is also a descendant of Muddy Waters, in case you recognize the name), built the stage and structures that helped to mold the center into the inviting artistic hub it became.
“It became really a safe haven for a lot of people,” said Morganfield.
“Not just starving artists, but folks who love live entertainment. It became a place where they could come and count on live music. And because of Barbara’s stature in the music industry and all the people that she’s worked with since she started on the road at 16 years old, there have been so many greats that have come through that performance arts center. On any given night, there’s no telling who you could see.”
Even as she’d continue to record solo music, tour the world as a performer, frequently play jazz clubs throughout Southern California, and serve as an associate professor of Jazz Studies at UCLA, Morrison would prioritize and cherish her time back home at the center and dearly loved the community it served.
Morganfield, who eventually came to run the theater, manage Morrison and become her business partner, recalled, “There were just so many people hurt when she died. She not only fulfilled people’s artistic ventures, but Barbara, she helped to take care of a lot of people; she took care of the neighborhood, financially. She bought one family a van. She’d give people jobs when she didn’t really have a job available. ‘Come on and clean up, come do this for me. Go get that coffee for us,’ [she’d say]. She’d give them a little something.”
CFO of the Barbara Morrison Performing Art Center Karen A. Clark added, “She’d take care of the kids and get clothes for kids, helping kids if they need something for school.”
Clark’s business and financial acumen developed over decades in the banking industry is helping to steer the Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center into a sustainable future.
As the center was owned by Community Build, an organization started decades ago by Maxine Waters and colleagues, Morganfield and Clark had to bid on it, put forth their vision, their financial projections and prove the likelihood of solvency. They received permission from Morrison’s family to continue to use Barbara’s name, likeness and image.
“Our vision is to be much more than a community center,” said Clark, who sits on the board of Pacific Coast Business Advisory, one of 13 SBDC’s in the state of California. “But first and foremost, we have put together a business model so that we have a sustainable plan to keep that center open.”
The plan will include but is not limited to the establishment of additional music lessons, acting classes, business workshops for women and local merchants, and the resurrection of an event called Ella’s Club, taken from a pastime of Ella Fitzgerald and friends, which is similar to karaoke but with a live band. The center will continue to be used as a rehearsal space for such renowned bands as Klymaxx and The Delfonics. These events will supplement the regularly scheduled music performances that locals are accustomed to attending at the center. Clark and Morganfield are keen on keeping Morrison’s passions at the fore.
“Barbara’s vision was to really proliferate the jazz and blues tradition, particularly with Black people, and to teach children what that legacy is, and who the people are, and how they can be a part of that,” said Clark. “Her whole goal is just to keep this tradition alive in the Black community and to give it to our children and to make them interested.”
Her passion for music education access lives on in other ways as well, as in 2020, UCLA launched the Barbara Morrison Scholarship for Jazz.
Morrison was an advocate for young people overcoming barriers, and she was a strong role model in that regard.
“Just stay focused on what we’re doing,” Morganfield remembers her saying with frequency.
Health setbacks didn’t stop Morrison, who had both legs amputated due to diabetes and still continued to perform, once even going directly from the hospital to a performance, bandages and incisions still fresh.
On the cusp of spring, last year, Morrison was taken to the hospital for complications relative to cardiovascular disease, and her many loved ones did not expect that she’d not return. However, as anyone who knew her might have expected, her memory and her mark, in many ways, remain.
This month a fundraiser will be launched to cover the expenses for building materials and labor to re-open the new location of the California Jazz and Blues Museum. Morganfield is also working on renovations to the center itself.
A host of lively events such as Babe’s and Ricky’s Reunion and a nine-year-strong “First Thursday Blues” jam session (including tonight, March 2) help to round out an impressive and culturally satisfying calendar in the weeks and months to come.
As a tribute to Morrison on March 17, a day after the one-year anniversary of her passing, Dante Chambers will perform songs by Nat “King” Cole.
For more information, visit www.tpmpac.com.