Remembering the Incomparable Barbara Morrison

5 min read

Everyone has a story about Barbara Morrison. The L.A. legend was a force unto herself—a powerhouse interpreter of the blues, a jazz singer equal parts suave and sonorous, a scintillating performer who held audiences in thrall. 

On Saturday, April 29, at 7:00 p.m. The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music will play host to Vocal Night: A Tribute to Los Angeles Jazz and Blues Legend, Barbara Morrison. Morrison, who for 26 years taught voice lessons at UCLA and was adjunct associate professor of global jazz studies in the School of Music, was a beloved teacher and colleague.

Barbara Morrison

“This concert really is the brainchild of Luciana Souza,” said Michele Weir, who is co-producing the concert with Souza, a fellow instructor in the Global Jazz Studies program. “We really wanted to honor Barbara, and we felt it was important to do it here at UCLA, where she touched so many people. We wanted to involve all of our current vocal students as well as recent alumni who worked directly with Barbara in past years. Each one will perform a song that connects them to an experience they had with Barbara Morrison, or a specific memory.”

The highly personalized nature of the concert is a fitting tribute to a woman who made every stage her own, and who left an indelible mark on everyone around her. The concert will feature special guests, including Stu Elster, Morrison’s long-time pianist, and Grammy-nominated jazz singer Gretchen Parlato, who studied with Morrison at UCLA more than twenty years ago.

“Barbara Morrison taught me to pay attention to the lyrics of the song, to pay attention to the story that was being told. She would have us write out what we felt the song was about,” said Parlato, who acknowledged that it was actually more difficult to follow this advice as a younger singer. “There’s a tendency to think about vocal phrasing and rhythms in an intellectual and technical sense. Barbara made us think about the emotional story in the song.” 

Gretchen Parlato (class of 1998)

“Her vocal virtuosity was unrivaled,” said Steve Loza, chair of global jazz studies at UCLA. “But what really made her beloved among the students was her teaching style and her personality.” 

Kennedy Shelby, a third-year global jazz studies major who will be performing at the April 29 concert, agreed. “Barbara had a fiery spirit,” said Shelby. “In our lessons, there would be a lot of laughter, a lot of joy. She made me feel at home. It is really rare to find that kind of warm energy with a teacher.”

Shelby owned that Morrison was an exacting teacher, both in refining vocal techniques and in developing their artistic and expressive sides. “Barbara took me out of my comfort zone. She taught me to tell stories through song, and that means taking risks. It was uncomfortable for me at first. But now, I feel like I can own it, and be more confident in my singing.”

Sophia James studied with Morrison from 2018-2021 at The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. In 2020, James (whose birthname is Sophia Wackerman) appeared on the 18th season of American Idol and advanced to the Top 11 finalists. She credits Morrison with giving her the confidence and the power to express herself.

“I was this scared, confused, eager little freshman,” said James. “I was a perfectionist, I was overly analytical about music. She warmed that right out of me. Barbara made me instantly comfortable, from the very first lesson. She had an infectious joy for music, and she really gifted that to me. I had to shed my insecurities and put raw emotion and intention into the songs I was singing.”

Sophia James (class of 2022)

James remembered back to her very first lesson with Morrison, when Morrison had sung “Here’s to Life,” the Artie Butler song made famous by Shirley Horn’s 1992 recording. “She brought tears to my eyes,” recalled James. “I was inspired immediately to learn the piece.” Years passed, and in the fall quarter of her senior year, James asked Morrison if they could sing the song together at her senior recital in the spring.

“She said, ‘Of course.’ And I was so excited,” recalled James. But Barbara Morrison passed away the following March, and James was left to sing the song alone at her senior recital. “I will sing “Here’s to Life” at the Vocal Night concert to honor her again,” said James. “She was one in a million.”

Morrison’s warmth and joy were infectious because they were so genuine. “Barbara and I taught together for at least 15 years,” said Michelle Weir. “Though we didn’t cross paths often due to differing schedules, when we did there was always a warm kiss on the cheek and a nice-feeling camaraderie. We both taught the same vocal students. We were a team.”

And of course, Morrison’s performances were riveting and unforgettable. “She could draw you in with a heartfelt ballad,” said Weir, “then one second later tear the house down with a rock’ blues-based tune.” Morrison also maintained a rigorous touring schedule. “Once she performed at a festival, they had no choice but to bring her back,” said Weir. “Audiences just adored her.”

Cheryl Keyes, professor of ethnomusicology and global jazz studies, recalled how she really came to know Morrison. It was 2006, and Keyes had just been commissioned to act as musical director for an all-women jazz instrumentalist concert, Lady Jazz: Blues in the Summertime at the Ford AmphitheatreSearching for lead vocalists led Keyes to Barbara Morrison.

“I hadn’t really worked with Barbara in a musical performance capacity at UCLA before,” said Keyes. “I just knew that she performed steadily in Los Angeles and was a regular at the famed Monterey Jazz Festival as the ‘incomparable Barbara Morrison.’ And I thought, ‘Here comes the diva. I’m going to be dealing with attitude now.’” 

Keyes was never more glad to be wrong. “She was nothing like the stereotyped diva. She was a delight to work with. She was the most cooperative artist, she had all of the songs down.” Not that Morrison wasn’t capable of surprising everyone. Keyes had meticulously programmed the first part of the concert to celebrate women’s historical role in the blues repertoire. Leading off the program was Morrison singing “St. Louis Blues,” a song which became one of Bessie Smith’s signature songs.

“Barbara came out with a feather in her hair and a grand dress, escorted by a young man, I had no idea that she was going to do that,” recalled Keyes, laughing. Her grand entrance, in the vaudeville tradition of Bessie Smith herself, thrilled the crowd and set the tone for the concert.  

Barbara Morrison at the Ford Theater for Lady Jazz: Summertime Blues, 2006

“I guess she did have attitude,” said Keyes. “Attitude in a good way.”

Vocal Night: A Tribute to Los Angeles Jazz and Blues Legend, Barbara Morrison will be held on Saturday, April 29 at 7:00 p.m. at Schoenberg Hall. The concert is free and open to the public, and seating is first come, first served. We anticipate a high turnout for the show, so early arrival is recommended. To receive priority seating, make sure to register for the event.

To honor Barbara’s incredible legacy, please support the Barbara Morrison Scholarship for Jazz by clicking here.