George Morrison Sr.

Inducted: October 17, 2023

Admirers of George Morrison Sr., of which there are many…

…feel he is to Denver jazz what Louis Armstrong was to the sound of New Orleans. But while Morrison, appropriately referred to as “Denver’s godfather of Jazz,” more than earned this honorific during his distinguished career, his achievements transcend genre and medium. The violinist and composer was a pioneer of all Colorado music during the 20th century as well as a towering social figure whose influence seems to grow with each passing year.
Born in Fayette, Missouri on September 9, 1891, Morrison grew up in a musical household; his mother played piano and his father was a champion on the fiddle. After moving to Boulder with his family as a child, George took violin lessons from a University of Colorado professor. Following his high school graduation and marriage to Willa May of Denver, where he relocated, he continued his classical training at Chicago’s Columbia Conservatory of Music. But since no symphonies of the day would hire Blacks, Morrison pursued a different path as leader of a band specializing in a new musical style: jazz.

BHS 249 13 83 300dpi
Courtesy of Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library

Morrison was the first Black artist signed to the iconic Columbia Records label; the list of the company’s acts includes Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Miles Davis. “I Know Why,” is George’s contribution to this legacy. Cut in 1920 and credited to Morrison’s Jazz Orchestra, the 78 RPM recording is a sprightly foxtrot featuring Morrison’s expressive violin playing alongside another celebrated talent, Jimmie Lunceford, on alto saxophone.

ManofYear copy
Courtesy of Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library

Lunceford was hardly the only Morrison’s Jazz Orchestra alum to make a national mark. One of the singers to croon under his tutelage was Denver’s Hattie McDaniel, who became the first Black actor to win an Academy Award, for 1939’s Gone With the Wind.

In addition to a long-term residency at Denver’s Albany Hotel, Morrison’s Jazz Orchestra toured widely in the United States and abroad, even playing a command performance for England’s King George and Queen Mary. During some of these appearances, Morrison was billed as “the Black Paul Whiteman” in reference to another Colorado Music Hall of Famer whose name accurately alluded to his Caucasian ancestry.

At times, Morrison’s race led to dangerous challenges in his adopted hometown.

During 1921, he built a house at 2558 Gilpin Street, outside the area redlined for Black residents — and in response, members of the Ku Klux Klan repeatedly tore down its foundation and burned a cross on the lawn. But Morrison wasn’t deterred. After the abode was completed, it became a safe place to spend the night for Black performers traveling through Denver who were excluded from many hotels because of their skin color.

Generations of budding Denver musicians crossed the threshold, too, taking lessons from Morrison at the address whether they could afford to pay or not. He also volunteered as a music teacher at the elementary and high school levels for Denver Public Schools. His son, George Morrison Jr., would subsequently break more barriers at DPS as a teacher, coach and administrator.

Morrison monument
Courtesy of Denver Park Trust

In the years after Morrison’s death in 1974, the City of Denver placed the Gilpin Street house on its roster of fifty places locals can’t imagine the city without. In addition, the violin virtuoso is the namesake of George Morrison Sr. Park, a Whittier neighborhood gathering place where an interpretative sign commemorating his life and accomplishments was restored in 2023. And Denver Arts & Venues has dubbed a performance area at the annual Five Points Jazz Festival the George Morrison Heritage Stage…

…a fitting tribute to a man whose life’s work was all about making sure everyone has an opportunity to be heard.

By: Michael Roberts

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