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Latin Jazz Conversations: Alexa Weber Morales (Part 1)

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We all have natural predispositions towards certain activities and they often have a way of working their way into our everyday lives. It's hard to predict where a person will go when they are exploring the world as a child, but it's easy to say that the things that repeatedly fall in their path will have some effect. In some cases, these things are a reflection of their parents' interests that squeeze through to their children. Other times a child just finds something that sets their passions aflame, sending them diving into every possible opportunity to pursue that spark. Either way, the things that naturally draw us closer eventually become embedded into our personalities and emerge consistently in our lives.

Singer and songwriter Alexa Weber Morales found herself closely attached to language and the voice at an early age, which opened the door to her future career. Her parents were amateur musicians and they bred a love of singing into their children. Morales sang extensively as a child, but also heard great vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald from her parents' record collection. This exposure solidified Morales' love for jazz, inspiring her to sing an elementary school vocal solo that brought her close to a future hero, Bobby McFerrin. Morales' parents also immersed their children in language, sending them to a French school that they helped establish in Berkeley, California. Morales moved to France with her mother in junior high, and after a year, her appreciation for language had greatly expanded. After high school, Morales moved to the East Coast where she spent a short time at a college with little musical activity. Feeling the need to perform more extensively, she left college and traveled across the country, where the sights and sounds inspired her to begin songwriting. Back in the Bay Area, Morales focused all her attention upon music, taking both voice and piano lessons, as well as every opportunity to sing. This eventually led her to a workshop with Bay Area music veteran Wayne Wallace, who encouraged her to dig more deeply into her songwriting. Through more classes, her relationship with Wallace grew, and as Morales made plans for her debut recording, he became a prime collaborator.

Morales' natural affinity for languages and the voice opened the door onto a number of interesting musical experiences. With each new step forward, she developed a unique set of artistic ideals that would allow her to grow into her current strong musical personality. In the first piece of our interview, we look at her early explorations in language, her first steps into songwriting, and the Bay Area musical figures that influenced her.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: Both of your parents were amateur musicians, what were your early memories of music as a child?

ALEXA WEBER MORALES: We would always sing. I learned to sing harmonies at a young age; on car trips and things like that, we were always singing in harmony. On the holidays, I sang in church. I have a recording that my brother did with me in studio for my first album. I was going to do it like an Easter egg, but I never did it. I might put it up sometime—it's my brother and I doing a French country tune that we learned as children.

LJC: You were exposed to a lot of languages as a child, how did that impact you in terms of your relationship with different cultures?

AWM: It was major. I went to a French school here in Berkeley that my parents helped to start; it was called Ecole Bilingue. I actually went to the San Francisco French school for one year first and then came over here because they started this school in the East Bay. That school still exists and it's quite big now.

We went to France with my mom when I was in 8th grade and during that time, we went to school there. It was great; my brothers and I came back completely fluent. In college, I studied some French too. My French was very, very good for a long time. It's still there, but I haven't used it other than singing in a really long time.

LJC: Were you exposed to French music while you were over there?

AWM: No, in fact, what happens when you're in a foreign country is that you get so homesick. There's nothing like American music. It just feels fantastic. I remember Irene Cara was big at that moment with the music from Flashdance. We had a record player and we had the single to “Flashdance . . .What A Feeling"; we used to play that all the time. We were desperate to get back home!

LJC: You started playing piano when you were young too—was that your first entry into playing an instrument?

AWM: Yes, I had classical piano lessons as a child and I took them off and on as a teenager. Then I took lessons on and off again as an adult. At some point when I was an adult, I started trying to play jazz piano. Actually, when I met singer and pianist Dena DeRose at Stanford Jazz Camp, was someone that asked me, “Do you play piano?" I said, “Yea, but not that well." She said, “You've got to play piano really well." She was somebody that made me improve a lot.

LJC: That's something that you've carried on up until today—do you play piano on gigs?

AWM: I'm playing piano on gigs sometimes now. I like what I can get from playing with other musicians, but I like what I do too—it's super useful. You always should be able to play a harmonic instrument. It's nice to be able to play some percussion as well—those are really good ways to improve your musical abilities.

LJC: You sang a solo when you were 8 in a concert with Bobby McFerrin—what was the story there?

AWM: My music teacher at the time was Dick Whittington, a Bay Area jazz pianist. He was our teacher at Malcolm X elementary school, and he had us singing jazz. My parents had Ella Fitzgerald records—they had a lot of Ella Fitzgerald songbook collections. I had already loved those, but he had us singing other types of jazz. He taught us “God Bless The Child." I sang it for him, and he said, “O.K., you're singing the solo." So it really had more to do with Dick Whittington than Bobby McFerrin.

At that time, Bobby McFerrin was just coming up; he was just beginning to develop his concept of solo voice. So he was doing his Wizard Of Oz thing—where he does the whole Wizard Of Oz by himself. I was part of a whole show; I didn't sing with Bobby McFerrin at the same time. I didn't interact with him at that time, but at that point, I became a lifelong fan. I have all of his recordings.

LJC: You mentioned that your parents were listening to Ella, what was your relationship with jazz?

AWM: It's good question—why was I drawn to jazz and not towards pop music? We had The Beatles, but I didn't listen to pop radio or pop music until I was a pre-teen and a teenager. I felt behind the curve, because people were really into this stuff. I was not at all. I was still totally into jazz.

Recently I was going to teach a class for high school students and I said, “I'm going to teach them jazz singing." They said, “If you make it a jazz singing class, nobody will come." I thought that was a horrible thing to say. I always think that jazz is everywhere; we just don't always recognize it. I get annoyed with the purist concept in jazz. Whenever you hear someone like Stevie Wonder improvising, jazz is behind all that.

LJC: Did you have an anti-jazz period when you were young?

AWM: No, I've never had an anti-jazz period in my life. I always just loved it. Something that became an acquired taste much later was salsa. That was something that I did not listen to until I was much older. What I liked about the concept of Latin Jazz, which didn't start to crystallize for me until after I started to work with Wayne (Wallace), was the idea of these two worlds coming together.

LJC: At that point, you went a different direction—you went to college on the East Coast and you weren't doing music . . .

AWM: Yea, but my college career was very short. I went to a good women's college that had no music. I did theater, and there was an a cappella group that was fabulous. I took a music appreciation class, and I was thinking, “I don't want to appreciate the music, I want to make the music!" I had to get out of there.

LJC: Leaving college sent you on a cross-country trip—what was that like and what did it inspire in you?

AWM: That was were I started to write songs. It's really crazy—at that point writing songs seemed so hard. I think that I started to try to write a song when I was packing up to leave school; I just started thinking of the song in my head. Then I was about halfway home—I was in Texas—and I just wrote this song. My life involves a lot of wandering; I didn't necessarily always go from A to B.

LJC: Once you got back to the Bay Area, what brought you back into music?

AWM: I started taking different lessons and I joined the Oakland Jazz Choir. It's such a hard career path in music. I think that if I had gone to a music school, that might have been easier—at least I might have seen what other people were doing. I still had a lot of skill improvement that I needed to do at that point though. I took voice lessons, and I was still singing. I was singing with an a cappella group that sang in malls and things like that.

LJC: It seems like when someone is trying to build a life in music, they end up doing a good number of things to enable you to do music.

AWM: Exactly, that's what it is. The other thing that happens is that you try to gather up the life experiences and form your palette; it's all part of the process of figuring out what you are trying to say. I'm not done doing that at all, but at some point, you do figure more of that out so you don't have to look about quite so much.

LJC: One of the points that was big for you was working with Wayne Wallace at Jazz Camp where he inspired you to dig into your songwriting.

AWM: Ever since leaving college, I had continued to write songs. All the time, I had tons of songs. I just didn't believe that they were very truthful or even good songs. When I met Wayne and took a songwriting class with him, he would give us different exercises. It was a great approach to writing songs. One song would come from writing around pre-established chord changes. Another song would be from a word association. Musically or lyrically, we would start from different points and see what we would come up with. He was very positive about it, and he gave me encouragement. During that time, I took a bunch of different classes with him. It took a couple of years, but we eventually got to the point that we realized that he was a producer and I was more ready to produce something. By then, I had a good job and I decided to do a real CD.

LJC: Who else really impacted you at the time?

AWM: At an overall stylistic level, Bobby McFerrin was an example of somebody that had a big impact on me. There were also people like Ella Fitzgerald. I was taking voice lessons for a long time from Macatee Hollie; he was an opera singer. I studied classical voice for a long time and he had a big influence on me. The bands that I worked with were also important. The people that saw me and said, “Hey, do you want to be in my band?" —they took a leap of faith and it's so valuable. A lot of people that helped me are people that nobody would know; just friends of mine who had bands or wanted to start working with me.

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This story appears courtesy of The Latin Jazz Corner by Chip Boaz.
Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved.

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