Monday, January 23, 2012

Riffing on Ray

Hitting the road with soul icon gave trombonist her big break

By  Kevin Joy
The Columbus Dispatch Sunday January 22, 2012 11:59 AM
After performing two nights in 1995 as a Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra featured guest, Ray Charles inquired about a musician whose smooth, dulcet tones had caught his ear.
“Who was that guy on trombone?” Charles asked.
That was no guy — nor was the player a member of the ensemble.
Sarah Morrow, a Pickerington native, had been hired for the back-to-back concerts, the biggest gigs that the 27-year-old had landed since leaving a New Jersey arts-administration job to pursue music full time.
Unaware of Charles’ interest, Morrow approached his manager after the first show.
“I just had this overwhelming feeling,” she said, “that I needed to ask to audition for his band.”
As expected, she received a swift rebuff — until the brassy hopeful mentioned that she had played lead trombone that night.
“He stopped, turned and said, ‘That was you?’  ” Morrow recalled. “Then he said, ‘So you think you can handle the road?’
“A few days later, I was in L.A.”
Not only did Morrow land the break of a lifetime, playing for two years with a 22-piece orchestra in locales ranging from Barbados to Japan, but she also became Charles’ first (and only) female musician — the significance of which took time for the graduate of Ohio University in Athens to realize.
On Friday and Saturday in the Lincoln Theatre, Morrow, 42, will celebrate her mentor’s memory by joining the Columbus Jazz Orchestra for the show "Hit the Road, Jack: The Music of Ray Charles."
Columbus bassist Roger Hines, who toured and recorded exclusively with Charles in the 1980s, will also play with the ensemble.
Although Charles died in 2004, his repertoire endures — from the irresistible boogie-woogie groove of Mess Around to the sweet, soulful opening notes of Georgia on My Mind. The extensive Charles catalog includes gospel, blues and even country.
The material “has a way of bringing the spiritual world to us on an everyday level,” Morrow said. “He puts everything that he has into every note.
“I viewed him really like a grandfather.
“I think I probably got more face time than normal,” she said. “He was concerned about the fact I was a young woman and made it clear that if anyone messed with me they had to answer to him.”
Yet life on the road, in particular among the company of raucous male musicians — and some territorial members of Charles’ backing singers known as the Raylettes — wasn’t easy.
“It was like the army,” recalled Hines, an adjunct music professor, 59, at Capital University in Bexley.
“It was rowdy.”
In Morrow’s memory remains fierce dialogue with a Raylette who declared that the coveted trombone spot should have gone to a black woman.
Today, when thinking of the encounter, Morrow remembers something that Charles once said to her during an international flight: “If you let your emotions get the best of you, you’re not good for anything.”
“In the end,” Morrow said, “the beauty was that the music always wins out.”
These days, she also focuses on more practical pieces of Charles’ guidance: remembering to put proper space between notes, knowing when to use softer volumes and understanding the importance of timing.
Such pointers helped Morrow launch a solo career, which included overseas pairings with jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater and the Duke Ellington Orchestra as well as with Columbus musicians Foley (a bassist, who goes by one name, who played for Miles Davis and recorded on the Motown label) and pianist Bobby Floyd.
Paris, where she was later scouted by a European jazz label, has been Morrow’s home for the past 14 years, although she plans to move back to the United States this year to be closer to her family.
A more recent engagement was a string of dates with pop trailblazer Cyndi Lauper and her “ Memphis Blues” tour. In the bedroom-turned-studio that Morrow uses when in Ohio is a signed, framed photo of Lauper. The trombonist gushed about having her makeup applied by the funky True Colors chanteuse.
Morrow’s success, her supporters say, is the result of more than that chance conversation in Dayton.
“She inspires you,” said Floyd, 57, of the Northwest Side. “She allows that creativity to happen.”
The performer remains a source of pride for Pickerington schools, said Mike Sewell, who served as band director during Morrow’s middle- and high-school years.
“The horn is an extension of her,” said Sewell, 54. “These things aren’t taught. It’s a gift. She’s always had that.”
Columbus Jazz Orchestra Artistic Director Byron Stripling, a trumpeter who once played some shows with Charles in the mid-1990s, noted Morrow’s toughness.
Being the “woman on the bus,” Stripling said, “that’s dues-paying. . . . She certainly won those guys’ hearts, minds and musical respect.”
The chutzpah began early. At the tender age of 4, Morrow became entranced with the trombone after attending a performance of The Music Man. When she was later assigned to the clarinet, she lied to her parents and claimed that her orthodontist had said reed instruments would harm her braces. She got her trombone.
These days, Morrow is preparing for the spring debut of her contemporary jazz album Elektric Air and remains at work co-producing a Louis Armstrong tribute album by five-time Grammy winner Dr. John.
The 71-year-old New Orleans blues rocker called Morrow “a bad-ass trombone player . . . who threw me a whole gang of loops.”
All opportunities, though, seem to circle back to the powerful influence of Charles.
Morrow played trombone as part of the opening music heard in the Academy Award-winning biopic Ray (2004), but she still can’t bring herself to watch the film.
Perhaps even more emotional than performing his tunes is playing them with the Columbus Jazz Orchestra, an ensemble that Morrow worshipped as a teenager.
“They are the reason I started playing jazz,” she said. “I do what I do because of the CJO.”
Morrow hopes that listeners find inspiration next weekend.
After all, as she can attest, only a few notes might be needed to get someone’s attention.

View Slideshow

Pickerington native Sarah Morrow, who has played trombone in venues throughout the world

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