“She is the one we have been waiting for” says Dr. Herb Wong, Asian American jazz pioneer, disc jockey, historian, critic, and “cool cat” icon. Those are high expectations that could intimidate the average artist but not Melissa Morgan who has a mesmerizing stage presence at 5’9” and a voice that evokes tears and goose bumps because she is “The One” making jazz hip again for a new generation.
Morgan was born in New York City to a Filipina mother and an Irish father. Her mother was born in the Philippines and immigrated to Chicago, moved to Toronto and then New York where she met her father at a Filipino Christmas Party. Her mother cannot sing however her father has a beautiful voice thanks to good genes passed down from her paternal grandmother, who was a classically trained singer made known by the Radio in the 1930’s. Melissa started playing piano at age 4 and was winning awards for her skills as a pianist and vocalist by the time she was in high school. She attended SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Music in New York and earned her B.A. in jazz vocal performance and has performed at many of New York’s top jazz rooms and musical festivals around the U.S. Recently, she was the headliner at the 6th Annual San Francisco Filipino American Jazz Festival on October 20, 2013 at Yoshi’s San Francisco hosted by founders Carlos and Myrna Zialcita, highly acclaimed jazz musicians in their own right. Here’s a YouTube video clip from that Festival:
I got a chance to sit down with Melissa and talk about her past, future, goals, and aspirations for the jazz industry.
Did you always know you’d be a jazz artist growing up?
I was very shy growing up. I took classical voice lessons when I was 14 and sang in the choir but was always content being in the background. I discovered jazz at 16 and became obsessed and started buying records. Discovered jazz by happenstance. I bought a Billie Holliday record and a John Coltrane record out of curiosity. I heard someone mention the names to me, but didn’t know much about them.
I have to admit that I have not been a jazz enthusiast because I cannot seem to relate to the typical jazz musician. How are you changing public perception?
I collaborate with young musicians seeking to create a resurgence of a renaissance. We want to give jazz a breath of fresh air while maintaining the culture and heart of the feel of the music – the toe tapping and fingers snapping on the 2 & 4. Hip Hop is a derivative of jazz. Many Hip Hop baselines are derived from jazz, often pulled right from the recordings and slowed down! Young people are more aware and politically minded these days and awareness is changing. Young people are more aware of the history of many artistic mediums beyond music, like film and art. We are aware of older movies and filmmakers, and how they are influencing the movie makers of our time, like Spike Lee, Edward Burns and Quentin Tarantino.
What are you working on these days?
I have been on a journey over the past 5 years. I released my first album, a classic vocal jazz record in 2009 across the bay at Yoshi’s in Oakland called “Until I Met You.” Right now, I am trying to raise money to finish a new album, very emotional and bigger-in-every-sense than my last: more blues, more mood, bigger, gutsier and bolder.
Who are your biggest influences in music?
Dinah Washington, Etta Jones, Joe Williams and Nancy Wilson who is the epitome of grace, who evokes drama in a tasteful manner, and a performer who commands attention. She creates music in a very natural and authentic way.
What are you listening to now in your Ipod?
Robin Thicke and Mumford and Sons whose lyrics are amazingly dramatic.
I know you asked me this when you said, “How can new people to the music, become fans of jazz?”
Jazz is story-telling music with lots of spirit. The heart of this music speaks to our own hearts and souls, without always being too intellectual, which many people have the misconception about. If people listen to the core feel of what this music is based upon, I think everyone would be moved by jazz. For my goal in delivering music, I’m not trying to reach your head, I’m trying to reach your heart.
I would say my motto right now is to be present in this moment right now with honesty and purpose. Get off your cell phones and be present with the people you are with. Listen to them, so you may respond appropriately. Speak up and say what is on your mind. When you love someone, tell them. When you are doubtful, ask a question. The world is moving so fast right now, that we are forgetting about the little moments that we let pass by. Let’s make them count with the people that matter.
What are your goals?
I want to finish my 2nd album and release it successfully. I want to travel more and expand my networks of musicians and music lovers. I would love to be featured in movies and film soundtracks. Right now, I am open to anything creative and positive.
What are you thankful for this Thanksgiving?
I have so much to be thankful for this year in terms of positive growth and change, but one thing in particular really stands out for me. I have had the opportunity to be immersed in the Filipino community the past few months, because of Carlos and Myrna Zialcita in the Bay Area. Due to the most recent natural disasters in the Philippines, I have participated in a few benefit concerts to raise funds to aid in relief. This is a hard time for many families, but the silver lining is that I have been able to be around a community of FIlipinos that I haven’t experienced since I moved to California. I didn’t realize how strong the Filipino community is here, but they took me right in and embraced me immediately. To witness my Kababayans come together, in such selfless acts of love and generosity is a beautiful thing. When people ask me to describe Filipino people, the first word that comes to mind is “soulful”. Filipinos live and act with heart and that is something to be proud of. It gives me pride to know that I come from and am part of a soulful community. Filipino Strong!
I am sending my love to everyone in the Philippines. We are praying for your recovery.