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  • Kimberley Guillemet

World Changer of the Month — April 2023: Melba Liston



Melba Liston was born in Kansas City, Missouri on January 13, 1926. Although she and her mother were poor, they had a piano and a radio, and Melba was exposed to music through her grandfather. One day she saw a trombone in a store window. She later recounted, “I just had to have it. [It was] beautiful, standing in the shop window like a mannequin, and I was mesmerized by it. My mom didn’t question it, she just ... got it for me.”

At seven years old, Melba elected to play the trombone in her elementary school’s new music program. As a young person learning to play the slide, she quickly learned how difficult playing the instrument was, but she stuck with it. By the age of eight, she was so good that she was invited to perform as a soloist on a local radio station.

In 1937, at the age of 10, she moved to Los Angeles, California. After playing in youth bands and studying, she decided to become a professional musician at the age of 16. She joined the musicians union and became a member of the Los Angeles Lincoln Theater band. During her period with the Lincoln Theater band, she also began working as a composer and arranger (roles rarely given or attributed to women in jazz during that era).

After her stint at the Lincoln Theater, she joined a band newly-formed by trumpeter Gerald Wilson and also recorded with Dexter Gordon. She then joined Dizzy Gillespie’s big band which, at the time, included musicians such as John Coltrane and John Lewis. She next joined a band backing Billie Holiday on tour. The experience of touring throughout the south with Holiday’s band, coping with the strains of limited income and even more limited audiences, was strenuous, disheartening and exhausting for Liston. In later years, Liston spoke candidly about the extreme difficulties of being a African-American female jazz musician during this era. Besides being shunned, underpaid and overlooked, she was consistently abused by male musicians. All of this notwithstanding, Melba found strength and motivation in her music.

In 1956, she joined Dizzy Gillespie’s orchestra and was commissioned by the U.S. State Department as a musical ambassador of the U.S. in South America. She later transitioned into working with Quincy Jones and his orchestra as both a player and writer. In 1958, she recorded her only album as a leader, Melba Liston and Her ‘Bones – a true gem in jazz history.

After she stopped playing the slide, Liston became known and respected in music as a savvy and remarkable bebop jazz arranger. She worked as an arranger for numerous recording companies, including Motown, and arranged scores for dozens of high profile musicians, including Clark Terry, Marvin Gaye, Mary Lou Williams, and Gloria Lynne. However, perhaps her most important work was written for Randy Weston, with whom she collaborated on and off for four decades from the late 1950s into the 1990s. Her work with Weston has been compared to the collaborations of Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington. Liston worked as a "ghost writer" during her career. According to one writer, "Many of the arrangements found in the Gillespie, Jones, and Weston repertoires were accomplished by Liston.”

Liston was a trailblazer as a trombonist and a composer, as well as a woman with stellar ability that transcended various genres and categories of music.

To listen to an audio recording of her work, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c4rJtLR1ZoQ.





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