Melba Liston

“The horn has always saved me from any sadness. Anytime I need a lift, the trombone takes care of me. I’m not so good to it as it is to me. The trombone set me up for an arranger, and then when I’m writing, I forget the trombone. But then when things get dull, I go back to the trombone, and it saves me again.”

-Melba Liston [1]

Where do I begin to capture the genius of Melba Liston? Her playing is sensitive and rich, both relaxed and buoyant. Her compositions and arrangements are creative, beautiful, and interesting, but above all — she swings like crazy!

Jazz composer, arranger, and trombonist extraordinaire, Melba Liston was the first female trombonist to play in leading big bands of the ’40s-’60s. She started learning trombone at age 7, choosing the instrument because she thought “it was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen,” and by age 16 she decided to become a professional musician and joined the union. [2] Incidentally, her junior high school bandmates included saxophonists Vi Redd and Dexter Gordon [1], the latter with whom she would collaborate on one of her “most notable recordings as a soloist” in 1947. [3]

By all accounts, Liston was an excellent collaborator and a poised and graceful performer. Linda Dahl’s description of her stage presence paints this picture poetically:

Onstage, Liston has that hard-to-define magnetism or charisma that draws empathy from the audience; it is there in her presence, in her physical bearing as she approaches the bandstand … When she turns to her audience ready to play, her face lights up; energy seems to surge from within, and she is rendered ageless. She picks up her trombone and steadies it: the lowdown shiny brass instrument becomes an extension of herself, a delicate thing fitted to her graceful arms and long, tapering fingers. She begins to play, and her tone is warm, yet light and delicate; she brings forth a soufflé of sound. No pyrotechnics, no dazzle — but she swings. Better, she sings with her trombone (and on rare occasions with her voice, in a manner evocative, I think, of Billie Holiday — as if something were being broken, then put together in a new way). [4]

She was highly a highly sought-after arranger, earning the respect of anyone who played her charts. Long-time collaborator, Randy Weston spoke with gratitude about Liston’s skills: “Melba is incredible; she hears what I do and then expands it … She will create a melody that sounds like I created it. 
She’s just a great, great arranger.” [5] Even so, due to gender dynamics of the time, she sometimes worked as a ghost-writer so many of her compositions and arrangements are attributed to other composers. [6] Liston played with and composed for many of the greats of the ’40s-’60s including Count Basie, Billie Holliday, Dizzy Gillespie, and Quincy Jones, Clark Terry, and Charles Mingus among others. Her album, “Melba and her Bones” is an absolute gem: 

Liston spent several years in Jamaica teaching music during her later career before being coaxed back to the states to put a band together for the Kansas City Women’s Jazz Festival. She kept performing until 1985 when a stroke left her partially paralyzed, but she continued to write and arrange for the remainder of her life. [7]

It has been such a powerful experience thus far to discover so many incredible women in jazz history that were previously unknown to me. I feel simultaneously overjoyed to learn about them and terribly guilty that I didn’t know about them already. Better late than never, I suppose.

Melba Liston 2

(Re)sources

[1] Sally Placksin, American Women in Jazz 1900 to the Present. (New York: Seaview Books, 1982). 

[2] Nicole Williams Sitaraman. “Melba Liston.” The Girls in the Band. http://thegirlsintheband.com/2013/11/melba-liston/

[3] Scott Yanow. “Biography.” All-Music Guide. http://elvispelvis.com/melbaliston.htm

[4] Linda Dahl, Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984). p. 251

[5] Steve Voce. “Melba Doretta Liston, Trombonist, Composer, Arranger.” (Randy Weston. 2006. http://www.randyweston.info/randy-weston-sidemen-pages/melba-liston.html).

[6] Wikipedia contributors, “Melba Liston,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Melba_Liston&oldid=873256180 (accessed January 9, 2019).

[7] “Melba Liston.” Women in Jazz. (http://www.fyicomminc.com/jazzwomen/melbaliston.htm)

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