Marty Morrison - Jazz Frequent Flyer - Interview
What’s been going on with you?
I teach at Missouri State University, so when I come to play in KC it's a two-and-a-half-hour drive home. I feel must do that because I have to play. I haven’t had a day off since the semester began, I play live gigs on weekends, between semesters and in the summer.
What did you realize during COVID-19 that will make you stronger?
The lockdown was good for me—I practiced a lot. I was thankful for that. If I hadn't had my instrument at home during the lockdown, I may have gone completely crazy. I did a handful of livestream performances during the pandemic, but that's just not the same. There's a coldness to that; when compared to playing live in a club when you can feed off the energy of the audience. The music needs the audience—to come alive. It’s refreshing to play live again. Who would have envisioned how this would unfold from March of last year?
I'm a jazz studies professor. I found it very difficult to teach jazz appreciation classes to non-music majors online. In my class, we talk about how much wisdom there is in our culture. We do it through the lens of the arts. What it means to be an American through an art that America created. Doing that online is almost impossible.
In a post-George Floyd world, it seems institutions have committed themselves to recognizing our diverse culture. Nothing more than this artform coming from folks that came here from all over the world. It's good to be back teaching this material in person.
Teaching in Missouri, about Miles Davis who was from St. Louis, and Charlie Parker who was from Kansas City, my new students from both KC and St. Louis have no idea who either of them are! I'm not necessarily trying to turn the kids in to jazz fans. I'm showing them the importance of the musicians of St. Louis and Kansas City in the development of the music.
Why do you love to keep coming back to play in Kansas City?
Oh man, It's awesome here. I lived on the east coast from 1996 to 2007. I got to travel internationally a lot, I played 30 gigs a month. Back here, there wasn’t a music scene anywhere, except for Kansas City. The music brings me here, and I get to see my best friends. The town has electricity, you can feel it. There isn’t a jazz scene anywhere . . . like there is in Kansas City.
How about growing up in Hannibal, MO and how music became your life?
My dad is a musician. He's 85 years old. He is Bill Morrison, and I still play gigs with him. He and the guys he played with taught me how to play. When I was a kid, he played me all his albums from Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and organist Jimmy Smith.
Dad’s friend, Cleat Webster, from Quincy, Illinois played drums with him. He went to school in LA in the 1950s. He and Missourian, and bassist Charlie Haden were roommates in college. Cleat moved back to Quincy after college. Haden recorded with Ornette Colman. Cleat was my musical mentor. He was my Yoda. I was fortunate to grow up around those guys. That's what got me started. I always knew that this is what I wanted to do.
What was the first live jazz show that really blew you away?
It was the first day of school—in the 8th Grade. I came home from school and my dad said he had a surprise for me. Hannibal is on the Mississippi River so when you drive across the river you are in Quincy, IL. He took me into this bar, The Buddy Rich Orchestra was in there. I was 13, We had seats right up front. The next year, when I turned 14, Dizzy Gillespie came to play in Hannibal. His band was made up of young players from Berklee College of Music. Tommy Campbell was the drummer. Tommy was modern and swinging. That show really did me in.
What did the veterans and big shots teach you?
One of my first big gigs was with pianist Marcus Roberts. There was a big difference between what they were doing and what I was doing! I had to step up my game regarding attention to detail. When I was playing with Marcus, he had just left Wynton Marsalis' band. He had played with name drummers, Jeff 'Tain' Watts, Herlin Riley, and Elvin Jones.
When I played with him, he was very blunt with me. He explained to me what I should do and what I should stop doing. It was a great lesson. He cut through a lot of stuff that would have taken me years to figure out. He was direct and I appreciated that.
Later, that lesson has helped me as a teacher. I encourage my students. I am honest and direct with what needs to happen to move forward.
Marty Morrison graduated high school in 1983.
I went to Mizzou for college at 18 and that didn't last long. I wasn't going to class a lot; I was playing a lot of music. I got into The Chump Change Band and played with a guitar player named Babe Martin. l learned a lot from him.
I went to Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield. I was not a good student. I was still focused on music. With only a few jazz studies programs around the country, I continued playing in rock, R&B, and blues bands. It amazed me how often that kids grew up in America and attend an American institution of higher learning, ended up studying European music!
Then I happened into Murray's, a Columbia, Missouri restaurant that still caters to some of the biggest names in jazz. I heard a trumpet player there, from North Texas State named Mike Steinel. Mike hooked me up with some grad students from North Texas that had an artist-in-residency program at a liberal arts school in northeast Iowa.
They were a band called the Unified Jazz Ensemble. I joined the band. We spent a few years doing residencies around the country, through the National Endowment for the Arts. It was our job to gig and to teach jazz in rural areas.
In 1997, the band moved to Washington DC. We all had opportunities to teach there. When I moved to DC, I got a whole lot of experience playing with a whole lot of different people. I ended up leaving the East Coast in 2007 for Springfield, MO.
I went back to school. My intent was to get my degree and move back to the East Coast. When I received my degree, the college offered me a teaching position.
by Joe Dimino
Listen to the full interview here: http://youtu.be/UEfFpv0n-RA