Joan Morris is a popular mezzo-soprano largely identified with popular songs from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as with cabaret-style songs written by her husband, composer William Bolcom, and other modern composers. She has also sung serious works, such as the vocal setting in Bolcom's Symphony No. 4.
Morris was born in Portland, Oregon. She displayed unusual vocal talent in her teens and in 1963 enrolled at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington where she studied with Lyle Moore. After her departure in 1965, she entered the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City under a scholarship and studied voice with Clifford Jackson. She graduated in 1968 and began appearing in off-Broadway productions and in night clubs, often with harpist Jay Miller. She also continued her private studies with Jackson until 1973, and began taking instruction from Frederica Schmitz-Svevo in 1968, finishing in 1974. In 1972, Morris began performing with composer/pianist William Bolcom, who served as her accompanist. Three years later, the couple married, and have since maintained fairly heavy concert schedules with appearances throughout the United States and Europe, and more exotic locales such as Egypt and Turkey. They have also made about 23 recordings together, many reaching best-seller status. Their first joint effort was After the Ball: A Treasury of Turn-of-the Century Popular Songs, released by the Nonesuch label in 1974, which received a Grammy nomination. Morris also continued appearing in musical productions after her marriage to Bolcom. In 1979, she took the role of Polly in The Beggar's Opera in the Guthrie Theater production in Minneapolis, with music by Bolcom and 20th century French composer Darius Milhaud. In 1981, Morris joined the faculty at the University of Michigan's School of Music, where she teaches musical theater and focuses on cabaret-style music. She premiered her husband's song collection Songs of Innocence and Experience (based on texts by William Blake) in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1984. She also appeared in the 1988 premiere of another major Bolcom work, the Symphony No. 4, performed by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin. Her contribution in the effort was her lovely rendering of Bolcom's masterful setting of the Roethke poem The Rose. The work was subsequently recorded for New World Records and received much critical acclaim. Morris and Bolcom collaborated in another successful recording in 1990, Blue Skies: Songs by Irving Berlin, on the Nonesuch label. That same year, Morris appeared in the premiere of Casino Paradise, described as a musical theater opera, with music by Bolcom and lyrics by Arnold Weinstein. Again, a successful recording ensued, this one on the Koch Classics label. In May 1993, Morris was featured on Charles Kuralt's CBS Sunday Morning with Bolcom. The two have also appeared on numerous other television programs, including the Dick Cavett Show and on PBS broadcasts, as well as on National Public Radio. Morris continued to be active throughout the '90s. Among Morris' later recordings is a 2002 Naxos album of George McKay works that features her singing several of his songs with Bolcom as her accompanist. ~ Robert Cummings