Detroit and its surroundings have been the birthplace and learning ground of countless great jazz instrumentalists but have also given the world a number of majestic singers as well. The jazz bug can lay dormant and only grow into infection long after the host body has left town. Barbara Morrison was born in Ypsilanti and raised in Romulus. She began to sing early and performed on the radio before she was even a teenager; in the 1960s, however, many kids like her loved Motown rather than jazz, and Morrison was captivated by the singing of Gladys Knight and other popular singers of the day. In 1971 she moved to Los Angeles, and it was there that she discovered the blues and jazz.
Her strong grounding in the blues is always apparent, even when she is singing a lush ballad, but she also has a wide-ranging knowledge of American popular song. Morrison’s vocal talents and good musical training, combined with a keen sense of tradition, led to the development of a highly idiosyncratic vocal style, with a deeply personal, rich sound. The great jazz pianist Junior Mance once said of her, “She’s got one of the best sounds since Dinah Washington.” And he should know, because he toured and recorded with the self-styled Queen of the Blues early in his career. Indeed, Morrison is greatly enamored of Washington’s singing and has developed a show named “I Wanna be Loved: Stories of Dinah Washington.”
Morrison likes to create complex contexts for her own voice. In addition to her homage to Washington, she has developed a show based on the songs of Harold Arlen, composer of “Over the Rainbow” and around 500 other songs, and another entitled “Howlin’ Blues and Dirty Dogs,” on the life and music of the classic blues belter Big Mama Thornton.
Her affinity with Thornton is hardly surprising. Her versatile approach to jazz song repertoire notwithstanding, the blues permeates all of her music. At sixty-four, her pitch remains note perfect, her range covers two and a half octaves, and her deep resonant sound has a slight roughness at the edges that is redolent with the blues. On one of her most recent recordings, A Sunday Kind of Love, she does not sing a single blues number, and yet standards like Duke Ellington’s “I’m Just a Lucky So and So,” or “On the Sunny Side of the Street” are presented with a saucy, laid-back style that references the kind of sophisticated blues feeling that permeated the performances of Dinah Washington or Etta James.
In addition to a busy performance schedule in Los Angeles and on the road, Morrison teaches at the Herb Alpert School of Music at UCLA as well as her own music school, and recently opened her own small performance venue. She performs with the magnificent pianist Tad Weed at the Kerrytown Concert House on August 23.