Cathy Morris: Making music to make a difference 

When Cathy Morris met me at the Abbey Coffeehouse to talk about her latest project, a CD compilation benefiting women in need through the Women's Fund of Central Indiana, it was the same Cathy Morris I'd seen perform onstage numerous times. In other words, Morris' stage presence is not just a stage presence; her musicality is not just about playing music. Morris carries the rhythm and enthusiasm of her performances in her everyday person. Cathy Morris is Cathy Morris - whether she's onstage or off. It's just this disposition that makes her capable of playing so many roles simultaneously: artist, teacher, altruist, mother.

Add 'conductor' to the list. No fewer than 18 artists are included in her venture, Here for You, in which all artists have Indiana connections or live here now. Further, the cover art is designed by visual artist Carol Tharp-Perrin. Perrin's painting, an abstraction of a figure a-swirl in a kaleidoscope of colors and swipes of the paintbrush, her torso drawn in the shape of a heart, has become an icon of sorts: I first viewed the piece at Domont Gallery where it was part of a group exhibit of women artists.

The feeling was one of complexity; the woman's face is tilted upwards, signifying a pride, or even reluctance, about being vulnerable. Giving of ourselves, after all, is ultimately an act of vulnerability, and it is one of the more profound, and yet perhaps the most rewarding, of all human challenges. Perrin may or may not have intended to be ironic, but humans are complex and our motives are not often easy to discern.

Poet Bonnie Maurer has also contributed to Here for You with her poem that further elucidates the intricacies of this project and all it represents from the standpoint of women: 'I am in this silver diner thinking / about the extra 'S' in dessert and the 'men' / in menu, and how I learned from my Mother / a woman is a spoon - a woman can / live in a soup pot or a pie, serving up / day in and day out the sugar and salt - / love is a meal, memory its bone, / and how a pink towel outside on the line / lifting to the sky can be a day's work for some / and for others passing by, it is an inspiration / from the wind before the next junction. / I know we hold our lives taut as the clotheslines / of our childhood we vaulted over like circus acrobats / into the basket of whites. / What will this daughter of mine twirling / on her red seat in the parade of silver dollar / stools at the counter say she knows?'

It is along these lines, then, that I question Morris. What inspired her to take on this project, when there was no money to be made, and the artistic recognition was not hers alone? Morris, who continues to perform for adults in jazz clubs and private and public events and for children in school programs and workshops, has achieved household name status here in Central Indiana over the 15 years or so since she began performing and recording. Anyone who has gone to the Penrod Arts Fair or the Jazz Kitchen, or any number of other festivals and events, has heard the vivacious electric violin of Morris and her jazz band, Collage.

Morris, raised in Columbus, Ind., is a classically trained violinist who chose to stay in her home state. 'My music has always been a social thing,' Morris recalls, 'and it's always been a happy thing.' This is the approach she has become known for: Audiences enjoy Morris' self-described 'party jazz' music-making. They expect to be uplifted. Morris is equally effective with students. 'I can show them what the electric violin is but I can also talk to them about self-esteem.'

This project was born, Morris says, 'out of sheer appreciation for being able to earn a living playing original music for this community. I have been committed to giving back to the community.'

Morris clearly has fun performing, but she also takes her job seriously, and she takes her community, and its needs, seriously.

'Music and the arts in general serve as a catalyst for making a difference in peoples' lives,' she adds.

The disc, which spans genres including classical, jazz, rock, Latin and folk, is a collaboration of 'women who have made an impact with their music,' Morris says. It is also testament to the prodigious local talent that Morris wants to encourage. In other words, it's not about Cathy; and she is quick to point this out. And yet, Cathy Morris is clearly the energy behind the effort, and the discerning ear that had to make difficult decisions as to who would be included. These kinds of homegrown projects are often mediocre artistically; everyone wants to jump on the proverbial bandwagon, and the results are usually reflective of this 'come one, come all' approach. But Morris got lucky. The CD is worth listening to - repeatedly.

The effort, Morris believes, was a long time coming. She literally woke up one morning and said to herself, 'I can't believe no one has done this.'

Morris, who is the mother of a teen-ager, stays youthful herself; she wears her hair long, practices yoga and maintains a vigorous schedule of performances and educational programs. Since our initial conversation, she has not dropped the ball on this project, and the results are paying off. The disc, which is distributed primarily through Karma records, is being promoted throughout the city at events for which Morris and the other artists perform.

It's about the art, after all, Morris affirms. 'This was really about showcasing the variety of talent that I had either collaborated with or met up with over the years. We're educating a large number of people to a large number of styles that are out there, to a range of talent, and we're also educating people to the need to make an impact.'

As I write, 'Here for You' plays, and I'm struck by the range Morris refers to: Jan Aldridge Clark's 'Let's Go To Portoviejo' is a sultry harp piece, contrasting with the bluesy voices of the Hampton Sisters crooning 'Route 66'; then there's Carrie Newcomer's timeless country-folk-rock sound, alongside the harder edges of 'Puppets' by Blaq Lily. And of course Cathy Morris' electric violin spices up the tracks between Barbara Higbie's soft and lullingly sweet 'Onyame' and Amy Stephens' similarly flavored 'A Love Remembered.' Veteran women jazz artists the Hampton Sisters and Mary Moss rightfully book-end the disc.

But the project did not just materialize out of thin air, and Morris' efforts. Meg and Jim Irsay (of Indianapolis Colts fame) provided the up-front funding to get the project started; basically, this covered the hard costs of recording and burning CDs and producing the accompanying packaging. And Morris had to make difficult decisions to keep the quality of the work consistent.

All participants are professional, full-time musicians with a pre-existing compact disc recordings of their own. Morris discovered, too, that 'all were touched personally by a women's illness of some kind,' whether it was their own experience or that of a loved one.

'Considering how diverse everybody is,' Morris remarks, 'it's really kind of surprising how complimentary they are as well.' So there's a musical synchronicity of sorts, a coming together that comes from Ö coming together.

'If I were to sum all of this up in a word,' Morris adds, 'it's gratuity. It's thankfulness.' Morris stresses the collaborative element of the project, which has pulled in several entities and events. The disc retails for $18, with the proceeds going directly to the 'Here for You' fund managed by The Women's Fund for immediate as well as long-term use towards mental and physical support organizations for women. Morris anticipates raising $75,000 if all 5,000 discs are sold.

'You can play for love or you can play for money or you can play for both,' Morris says. It would seem she has forged a perfect marriage between both. 'Arts really do have a purpose. The more you give to others the more you get.'

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