By Ray Richardson
Heartfelt tributes and testimonials continued to pour in this week for legendary jazz performer Barbara Morrison, who died March 16 following a long bout with diabetes. She was 72.
Morrison, a Leimert Park enthusiast whose iconic career spanned 60 years, died after spending several days at UCLA Santa Monica Medical Center, friends and family members said. No cause of death was reported. Funeral arrangements are pending.
“This is a great loss to the music industry,” said Manuel Santiago, general manager of the Catalina Jazz Club and a friend of Morrison’s for more than 35 years. “I don’t know what we’re going to do without her.”
Morrison was scheduled to perform at the Catalina Jazz Club March 16. Santiago canceled the show after learning Morrison had been hospitalized March 13.
Tim Morganfield, general manager of the Morrison Performing Arts Center and the California Jazz and Blues Museum in Leimert Park, said teary-eyed friends and supporters of Morrison were stopping by both facilities to pay their respects and share memories of Morrison.
“She helped Leimert Park grow,” Morganfield said of Morrison. “She loved the community and culture of Leimert and giving back to people, especially the kids.”
Morrison, who taught music for 20 years at UCLA, developed a staff at her Performing Arts Center to teach local kids and teen-agers how to play instruments and read music.
Morganfield said more than 2,500 youths had benefited from various teachings about the music industry, including lessons on how to play the drums, guitar, saxophone, trombone, trumpet, piano and other instruments.
“Barbara taught them the right way,” Morganfield said. “They learned everything. We’re going to find a way to keep her legacy alive.”
Born in Romulus, Mich., a Detroit suburb, Morrison cultivated a career that included performances with music icons such as Ray Charles, Etta James, Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, Dizzy Gillespie, Tony Bennett, Nancy Wilson, Mel Torme, Doc Severinsen, Dionne Warwick, Lou Rawls, Joe Sample, the Count Basie Orchestra and many others.
Morrison’s talents were discovered at the age of 10 when she was featured in a live performance in the studio of a Detroit radio station. She moved to Los Angeles in 1972 and started performing with the Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson Band.
While living in Los Angeles, Morrison became attached to the South L.A. community, particularly Leimert Park, where she opened the Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center in 2007 and the California Jazz and Blues Museum in 2016.
The lobby of Morrison’s Performing Arts Center is filled with photos of artists that inspired her career, performers like Muddy Waters, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Aretha Franklin and others. Morrison used her neighborhood performing art center to help pass on the legacy of jazz and blues to a younger generation of music students.
“I had to do something to show the children that live in this area that these are important people in music,” Morrison said in a 2020 interview with KABC-TV reporter Ashley Mackey. “I still feel there’s room for people like me to keep the flame burning.”
Morrison battled through health issues to continue performing and remain involved with her Performing Arts Center. Her diabetes condition eventually led to amputation of both of her legs. Though bound to a wheelchair, she was still a sought after performer.
Morrison was scheduled to perform March 17 at the Biltmore Millenium Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Her most recent performance was on Feb. 4 at the Catalina Jazz Club.
“I’m going to reach out to the musicians she played with and see if we can put a tribute show together in her honor,” Santiago said. “So many of us are really sad about this. She was always smiling. She was such a wonderful human being.”
Ray Richardson is a contributing writer for The Wave. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org