Jazz Pioneer Melba Liston Remembered
All Night Jazz celebrates the legacy of pioneering trombonist, composer and arranger, Melba Liston, on the 95th anniversary of her birth. WUSF’s Jackson Harpe has more.
Melba Liston was born on January 13th, 1926 in Kansas City, Missouri into a family of music lovers. Her own love for music would come about when she was 7 years old and first saw her trombone.
Liston’s told jazz critic Steve Voce it was love at first sight.
“When I saw the trombone, I thought about how beautiful it looked and knew I just had to have one. No one told me that it was difficult to master. All I knew was that it was pretty, and I wanted one.”
Her skills on the instrument manifested quickly and she was performing for a local radio station when she was 8. A pivotal moment in her early life was the family’s move to Los Angeles when she was 10. She studied with Alma Hightower and was classmates with Dexter Gordon, who would later become a saxophone icon.
When Liston was 16, she joined a musician’s union and began playing in the pit for live shows at L.A.’s Lincoln Theater. In 1943 Liston’s journey continued with the Gerald Wilson Orchestra, which was new at the time. She was with the group until 1948. She next joined Dizzy Gillespie’s band, but unfortunately that lineup disbanded after only a year.
Liston was the first female trombone player in a big band at that time and, with that, came struggle.
Liston told Emmett Price III of the Black Music Research Journal, “There’s those natural problems on the road, the female problems, the lodging problems, the laundry, and all those kinda things to try to keep yourself together, problems that somehow or other the guys don’t seem to have to go through.”
Liston and Gerald Wilson played on a tour of the south with a smaller group and vocalist Billie Holiday. The tour, being a rather distasteful experience, turned Liston away from music for the next few years.
Composing and arranging brought her back and would eventually cement her trail blazing legacy in the male dominated world of jazz in the mid-20th century. In those days, very few women thrived in jazz, and most of those who did were singers.
She eventually picked up her trombone again with Dizzy Gillespie and also did a tour set up by the U.S. State Department to the Middle East and Asia in 1956. Liston had arranged some of the music for the tour, including: “Stella By Starlight,” “My Reverie,” and “Wonder Why.”
These arrangements are showcased on the “Birks Works” compilation album from the Verve record label.
Liston’s music career gained even more momentum when she joined Quincy Jones, who had played with her in Gillespie’s orchestra, on a tour in Europe.
1958 was a particularly fruitful year for Liston who released her own album, “Melba Liston and Her Bones” which featured other talents like Slide Hampton, Al Grey, and Bennie Green.
It was also the year she met pianist and composer Randy Weston, whom she would frequently collaborate with in the latter half of her career. Weston spoke highly of Liston’s musical prowess, “Melba is incredible; she hears what I do and then expands it,’ Weston told Steve Voce, “she’s just a great, great arranger.”
Her arranging became her main musical outlet, after her trombone playing came to a swift end in 1985 after a series of strokes. Liston died in 1999.
In addition to her time with so many other jazz legends, Liston was declared an NEA Jazz Master in 1987 and helped establish the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra.