Legendary local Barbara Morrison leads the quirky museum which serves up Monday night jazz.
It’s almost the end of the night when one of the remaining singers is called to the front of the room. He rises from his gold-framed seat to walk down the aisle toward the make-shift stage and takes the microphone from James Arnold, a local jazz vocalist and the evening’s jovial host. He leans toward the piano player and sings melodically as if engaged in a congenial conversation as he performs the old Murray Grand standard, “Guess Who I Saw Today” — and finishes his song to rousing applause.
Two years ago, singer Eric Lyn’s talents led him to “The Voice.” Now he performs at Ella’s Pub, a safe place for local jazz and blues performers to entertain and workshop new songs. Grammy-nominated jazz and blues legend Barbara Morrison hosts the Monday night fetes at the California Jazz and Blues Museum in Leimert Park, South L.A.’s arts and culture enclave. The museum, which Morrison founded in 2016, neighbors other venues of cultural import like the renowned Eso Won Books, the iconic World Stage and the newer Hot and Cool Cafe, which along with good food and featured artists, hosts its own music nights.
Ella’s Pub borrows its name from the “first lady of song,” Ella Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald performed at the Hollywood Bowl several times over the years in the ‘50s and ‘60s; singing memorable songs like “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Someone to Watch Over Me.” Her frequent companion was jazz impresario George Wein who founded and produced the famous Newport Jazz Festival among others up until very recently — he is now 94.
“Ella used to work at the Hollywood Bowl,” Morrison says. “She and George Wein were partners and they were like, you know, ‘Mutt and Jeff.’ And, instead of going to a restaurant when they got off work and having people all night long saying ‘I know you, can I have your autograph?’ ‘Will you take a picture with me?’ Ella would take some of the stars from the Bowl home and they would cook and sit around a piano and talk. She made her rec room Ella’s Pub.”
At 70, Morrison is stunning with her natural, short white hair and big smile; the twinkle in her eyes commands you to stop and take her in. That twinkle comes from loving everything she does – and she does a lot.
Her distinguished career reads like a Who’s Who from the world of jazz and blues. She has performed with musical icons like Tony Bennett, Nancy Wilson, Ray Charles, Etta James, Dizzy Gillespie and more. She has been honored with three Grammy nominations including Best Large Jazz Ensemble in 2015 when she was a featured vocalist in the “The L.A.Treasures Project.”
Barbara Morrison gives notes to a singer mid-performance at Ella’s Pub - the musicians change the key and the rest is magic. Photo by Ande Richards.
Over a decade ago, she established the Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center and started teaching at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. She also performs locally at Pips and Catalina Bar & Grill and travels to perform at concerts nationally and abroad.
Charmed might be an appropriate moniker for her life if not for the Type 2 diabetes that runs in her family, to which she lost both legs a few years ago. These days she uses a wheelchair or prosthetic legs to get around. But this has not slowed her down in the slightest.
California Jazz and Blues Museum
Timothy Morganfield, Morrison’s self-proclaimed right-hand man, is a tall, striking figure. He is kin to McKinley Morganfield, known professionally as Muddy Waters, a blues singer-songwriter and musician who’s been dubbed the “father of modern Chicago Blues.” Morganfield and Morrison have known each other for over a decade, and he was with her when she first laid eyes on the space that would one day become the museum.
“We walked here when the building was empty,” Morganfield says, “and she wrote her name on the glass and she said we gettin’ this and we’ve been here almost four years now.”
The California Jazz and Blues Museum in Leimert Park is home for Ella’s Pub Monday nights. The museum houses ephemera, photos and art of world-renowned jazz and blues musicians. Photos by Ande Richards.
History is not just in the name of the space where the performers come on Mondays, or in familial ties, or even hinged on Barbara’s legacy — it is everywhere, inside and out. The entire front of the building, from floor to ceiling, is glass. Inside, large paintings and photos of jazz and blues greats like Nina Simone and Dizzy Gillespie hang, sharing space with Leimert Park community members and other musicians of note. There is a guitar suspended from the ceiling and bicycles are weaved into the display. As you walk in the door, a small neon sign that reads Ella’s Pub greets you; as a colorful painting of Ella Fitzgerald wearing a red dress lies underneath.
Two acrylic stands display postcards featuring the portraiture art of Kraig King. Dinah Washington, Miles Davis, Lena Horne, Erroll Garner, Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole, Thelonious Monk, Morrison and more come to life in the colorful renditions. Several noteworthy donations have also enhanced the museum’s collection.
“Well, I used to go to church at City of Angels and I remembered we had concerts,” Morrison says. “Every year, the pastor would invite famous people and there was a photographer there named Larry Farrell, and I contacted him. I say to Larry, ‘What’d you do with the whole wall of pictures at the church?’ And he said, ‘Well, they’re there at Robbie’s.’ [Robbie was the pastor’s name.] He bought that whole wall and the pastor’s wife framed them all. Wow. She gave them to me. But if I ever closed this place, I have to give them back.”
One collector donated 3,000 jazz and blues CDs, and people have brought in paintings and clothing that musicians wore, as well as musical instruments and other ephemera. Morrison recalls the gentleman who, before moving to Seattle, wanted to donate “a few things” before he left.
Kraig King had his first solo show at the California Jazz and Blues Museum on Oct. 1, 2017. He is now an “artist in residence” and has since created a series of 19 postcards featuring jazz greats, which can be purchased at the California Jazz and Blues Museum. Photo by Ande Richards.
“He lived in a mansion in Altadena and every room in his mansion was dedicated to jazz music,” Morrison says. “He gave us over $60,000 worth of pictures and books.”
There’s a lot to see and learn at the California Jazz and Blues Museum and through an association with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Morrison hosts tours and gives lectures to groups who come south to visit.
However, the space is not set up like a traditional museum with lots of negative space so the eyes can rest on an object. And there are no placards offering key information about the work on display. Instead, the space is congested and haphazardly arranged. Some images are framed and hung, while others lean against the walls. Stacks of books on jazz and blues are hidden under sheets on the floor, waiting for a place to house and display them.
Morrison says the museum is not in disarray by design and is considering getting a larger space. Still, there is a charm to the museum’s DIY presentation. An impressive collection of ephemera including sheet music, arrangements, event programs and other memorabilia, like a green pantsuit worn by jazz great Ella Fitzgerald, makes for a remarkable presentation of jazz and blues history and confirms the imprint they have made on music worldwide. For a community like Leimert Park that enthusiastically embraces jazz and blues performance, the museum is a holy grail.
Another Monday Night
Arnold, himself a talented jazz vocalist and resident host for Ella’s Pub, invites Pat Sligh, who rarely misses a meeting, to take her place on stage. She hands the sheet music for “Midnight Sun” to the band that features Karen Hernandez on the piano — and the bass if they don’t have someone else — John “JJ” Jackson on the drums and Billie Red on the bass.
Sligh and Morrison go back about 20 years or so. It was after the death of her husband, Rocephus “Tree” Sligh, that she remembered his wish for her to continue singing.
“I heard about Barbara’s open mic nights at her performing arts theater and got to know her a little bit,” Sligh says. “I performed and people were receptive and non-judgmental.”
Pat Sligh loves performing at Ella’s Pub and never misses a Monday. She says it’s infectious and is a “family sort of thing” the audience appreciates. Photo by Ande Richards.
Morrison navigates the museum like a race car driver on a track. In between performances, she grabs the donation box and wheels up and down the cement floor dramatically faux-crying in a plea for cash. Ella’s Pub is a donation-only event, and the money that’s collected is used for snacks and to pay an honorarium to the band. After her energetic request for donations, she takes to the stage and delivers an effervescent performance powered by her two-and-half octave range.
Arnold is the interlude between singers and musicians who have signed up to showcase their talents. On this night, he performs his rendition of Cole Porter’s standard “Night and Day.”
Top: Nurah Allah delights the audience at Ella’s Pub on a warm Monday evening in Leimert Park. Bottom row: Many of Ella’s Pub audience members are also the performers. They come to perform and support one another’s joy for music. Photos by Ande Richards.
On another Monday night, Nurah Allah rises from her seat on the front row and walks just a few steps to the stage where she gets ready to perform. She is a standout in a plum-colored maxi dress that hugs her curves, her long, curly hair resting uninhibited on her shoulders. Allah religiously travels from Gardena to Leimert Park and sometimes she will work on the same song for a few weeks so it’s at a better performance level.
“Guest musicians come in and play with us,” Allah says. “Different musicians play differently, and they help you explore and open up in different ways.”
She still doesn’t know who all the artists featured in the museum are, but she knows most of them.
“It’s inspiring just to be in this environment surrounded by greats.”