Barbara Morrison: An Appreciation
Unless you live in Southern California or are a dedicated aficionado of jazz and blues, you probably don’t know Barbara Morrison. If you’re hip enough to own her records or lucky enough to live in the town she’s called home for decades, you know Barbara Morrison is the Queen of Los Angeles Jazz & Blues, an omnipresent musical force who can be seen and heard everywhere music is made, from Disney Concert Hall to Hollywood Park Casino, from Catalina Bar & Grill Jazz Club to a Santa Monica hotel lounge. You also know that she’s a national treasure that far too few citizens of this fine nation fully appreciate.
The Queen is one of our greatest living singers. She swings, she wails, she whispers, she howls, she caresses. As the cliche goes, Barbara Morrison could sing the phone book and make it groove.
Until recently, I was unaware that she’s also a sublime and powerful actor.
Ms. Morrison is portraying Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton six times as week at the Stella Adler Theater, in Hollywood, in a musical play called “Howlin’ Blues and Dirty Dogs.” The production has some accomplished actors in it, yet whenever Queen Barbara is onstage, it’s impossible to take your eyes off her. She has a magnetism and charisma one associates with another Barbara (or Barbra), Ms. Streisand.
Big Mama’s story ain’t pretty: her life was filled with illiteracy, poverty, physical abuse, alcoholism and diabetes. And it requires and actor of tremendous bravery to live these degradations for the benefit of an audience. Barbara Morrison brings Big Mama –and the blues — to life. She’s honest and she’s magnificent.
Watching Barbara Morrison portray Big Mama Thornton is theatrically rewarding, but I found myself longing to see her play her best role: Barbara Morrison. The Queen is easily one of the most charming, entertaining, commanding performers you’ll ever see on a jazz stage. (John Pizzarelli is another, but he can’t growl the blues like this lady.) Her shows, combining jazz standards, gutbucket “dirty” songs, and extended joke-telling interludes, are always utterly engaging. Whether playing to 2,000 or 20 souls, Barbara Morrison takes seriously her obligation to give the audience a good time.
I’m sad that Barbara Morrison’s worldwide fame isn’t commensurate with her astonishing talent. But I’m happy that I can see her monthly in my hometown, proving night after thrilling night why she is truly the Queen.