Barbara Morrison is L.A.’s leading advocate for jazz and blues | Photo by Scott Mitchell

Barbara Morrison and Keb’ Mo’ hold court in Westchester to keep the California Jazz & Blues Museum kicking

By Bliss Bowen

Los Angeles is fertile seeding ground for creativity, thanks in part to the volume and variety of people who transplanted their music and other traditions here during the Depression and after World War II from the South, Midwest, Northwest and elsewhere. Museums and similar institutions play a vital role in safeguarding that cultural legacy, as L.A. has grown notorious for blacktopping and building over its history.

Situated in Leimert Park, the nonprofit California Jazz & Blues Museum was launched by acclaimed jazz stylist Barbara Morrison in 2017. Photos and paintings of artists from L.A.’s storied midcentury jazz and blues community hug its walls, overlooking instruments and other relics of the vibrant music community that once made Central Avenue a hugely influential, nationally renowned destination for jazz and blues. More importantly, it maintains history’s living presence as a community hub, offering numerous harmony and music classes for kids, vocal workshops, masterclasses, drum circles, showcases, concerts and hopefully more in the future.

The ambitious Signifyin’ Blues festival, happening Nov. 7 through Nov. 11 primarily at the Renaissance Los Angeles Airport Hotel, benefits the museum and its mission.

In addition to Morrison, Keb’ Mo’, Brother Yusef, Reverend Tall Tree, Bleux Bros, Lenny “Fuzzy” Rankins, Erica Brown, Cheyenne Amen and Bernie Pearl are all scheduled to perform. Sideman supergroup Blacktop Trio has polled prospective attendees for blues and hip-hop songs they should play.

Interspersed between those appearances are dance lessons, an invitational dance contest, open musician jams, Six String Showdown semi-finals and finals (emulating flashy traditional “cutting contests” between blues guitarists), and lectures and workshops about composition, cultural appropriation, the substance of jazz, and the power and influence of black music. On Saturday night there’s also a tribute banquet for South L.A.’s favorite son Kevin Roosevelt Moore, more famously known as Grammy-winning artist Keb’ Mo’. The entire event culminates with a Monday afternoon museum tour and Q&A with Morrison.

“Go on the website, download the PDF with the entire schedule, and map out what you want to attend because there’s so much goodness packed into four days,” says Chris Pierce, who’ll be performing as his blues alter ego, Reverend Tall Tree. “It’s so much to experience.”

Vigilant Angel

If the California Jazz & Blues Museum is the raison d’être of Signifyin’ Blues, then Morrison is its vigilant angel. The Detroit native has championed this community in myriad ways since relocating to L.A. in the ’70s, and the museum is her dream — one whose borders reach beyond the physical space’s limited square footage. Renowned for her vocal range and clearly articulated, shimmering tones, she sang with Johnny Otis’ band for decades, and as a solo artist she’s often performed a revue of Dinah Washington’s songs to enthusiastic reviews. Musicians and fans across generations speak of her with love and gratitude.

“Barbara Morrison has always been that kind of person in the community where she’s not just performing, but really supplying places where music and culture can grow,” Moore (aka Keb’ Mo’) says. “When I started performing solo, there was a place I played on La Brea; it’s a big storage facility now, but at the time they were having a big swap meet there called Shoppers World. We played out on the porch as people walked up, Saturday and Sunday from noon to four. [Laughs.] Almost every time, I’d call Barbara and she’d always show up and supply a great moment for folks there.”

“She’s an advocate, and always has been, for education, for exposing jazz and blues to a wide audience, a California audience, a young audience,” says Pierce, who played last year’s California Jazz & Blues Museum benefit in Van Nuys. “She’s a true visionary, as far as I’m concerned — somebody who does what she says, at least tries her damnedest to make happen what her vision is.”

For Moore, who moved to Nashville in 2010 (“I still live in L.A. in my head”), flying back to help the museum was a no-brainer: “Every time I call her she says yes, so when she calls me I say yes.” He credits the diverse L.A. community with shaping his artistry and music. “I always remember L.A. blues as part of a wider landscape of music,” he says.

“The L.A. scene in music literally raised me. The studios, the clubs, the entertainers. A lot of people ask about who’s your influences: ‘You into B.B. King, Robert Johnson?’ I did listen to those people, but really it was the Lermon Hortons, and Miles Grayson, and Sterling Harris, and people like Barbara Morrison and Keisa Brown. Musicians that were playing the club scene back then, like John Barnes and Phillip Upchurch.”

After starting out in a steel calypso band as a teenager in the 1960s, Moore was hired at 21 to join Papa John Creach’s genre-spanning band. But his first solo gig on guitar, he says, was at the Apartment on Crenshaw in the ’70s. Chuckling at certain memories, he rumbles through a list of other mostly long-gone venues: Babe’s & Ricky’s Inn, the smoke-choked Family Room (“I’d cough up a lung every time I left outta there”), the Living Room, Page Four Lounge, the Parisian Room, the Pied Piper. Monday nights at Marla’s Memory Lane, the jazz and supper club run by actress/singer Marla Gibbs from 1981 to 1999, is where he got “schooled in the blues.”

“Class was in session with Monk Higgins and Guitar Charlie Tuna, better known as Charles Dennis. That was in probably ’82 or ’83. They whipped me into shape [laughs] when it come to the blues. …

“I wasn’t playing in elite sections of L.A. I was in South Central. That’s where the music was. That’s where I learned. That’s where I became who I am, you know? Those are the people who taught me, who came to the club and bought drinks and yelled at you sometimes [laughs], who’d tell you when you were sucking. People wouldn’t let you get away with anything.”

Keb’ Mo’ plays multiple sets at Signifyin’ Blues, a fundraiser for the California Jazz and Blues Museum
Photo by Jeremy Cowart

‘Clubs Were Like Neighborhoods’

“Every club had its regulars [who’d] get the club going,” Moore recalls. “They were there every night, socializing and whatever. Some music lovers, some musicians that just like to hang out, some hustlers and pimps. [Laughs.] Nightlife, you know. … Page Four Lounge, you never knew who was gonna duck their head in there, because it was really good music, it was a hangout for other musicians, sometimes touring musicians, famous actors, people from the neighborhood. A comedian named Robin Harris would come there every night and tell jokes, be there hanging out. Then he suddenly died, and I went to his funeral and he was frickin’ famous! Stevie Wonder was there and Spike Lee. I didn’t know he was famous. … Clubs were like neighborhoods.”

For a stretch of time in the 1980s and ’90s, stages from Long Beach’s Blue Café and Hermosa Beach’s Café Boogaloo and Lighthouse Café to Leimert Park’s World Stage and Hollywood’s King King were hopping with jazz and blues acts like Mickey Champion, Buddy Collette, James Harman, World Stage founder Billy Higgins, Hollywood Fats, Juke Logan, King Cotton, King Ernest, Kid Ramos, Jimmie Wood, and too many others to name. The club circuit’s contracted severely since then, but L.A.’s blues and jazz community remains “pretty tight,” Pierce says, despite the toll exacted by music industry changes. That need for communal connection remains, too; understanding its history here helps with understanding the city and the music.

“Everybody’s out there just gigging and trying to keep their heads above water,” says Pierce, who was mentored by Jon Butcher before earning an Ella Fitzgerald jazz scholarship to USC at 18 in the ’90s. “There’s a great amount of respect for each other because we know how hard it is. We know you have to really love blues and jazz and, in my case, soul. You have to have a deep yearning. … Events like this are a chance for everybody to come together and reconnect — ‘Hey, I haven’t seen you in five years’ — that’s really important, to share not only the triumphs but the struggles that we all have, trying to keep the music alive. We’re all warriors in this, trying to keep this legacy moving.”

Signifyin’ Blues 2019 happens Nov. 7 through Nov. 11 at Renaissance Los Angeles Airport Hotel, 9620 Airport Blvd., Westchester. Single-night presale tickets start at $35 and full weekend passes start at $209 via signifyinblues.com. Tickets for the Saturday (Nov. 9) Keb’ Mo’ tribute banquet are $99 and for the Sunday (Nov. 10) jazz brunch/concert are $49 at signifyinblues.com.

The California Jazz & Blues Museum (4317 Degnan Blvd., South L.A.) hosts a kickoff party ($10 donation suggested) at 7:30 p.m. Thursday (Nov. 7). Call (310) 462-1439 for more info.

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