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Melba Doretta Liston (January 13, 1926 – April 23, 1999) was an American jazz trombonist, musical arranger, and composer. She was the first woman trombonist to play in big bands during the 1940s and 1960s.
Life and career
Liston was born in Kansas City, Missouri. At about the age of seven, she picked up the trombone and the rest is history. Despite being told she could not play it because it was not physically comfortable for a small girl, she stuck with it. At the age of eight, she was already good enough to be soloing on the local radio station. After playing in youth bands and studying with Alma Hightower and others, she joined the big band led by Gerald Wilson in 1943. She began to work with the emerging major names of the bebop scene in the mid-1940s. She recorded with saxophonist Dexter Gordon in 1947, and joined Dizzy Gillespie's big band (which included saxophonists John Coltrane, Paul Gonsalves, and pianist John Lewis) in New York for a time, when Wilson disbanded his orchestra in 1948. She toured with Count Basie for a time, and then with Billie Holiday (1949) but was so profoundly affected by the indifference of the audiences and the rigors of the road that she gave up playing and turned to education instead. Liston taught for about three years.
She took a clerical job for some years, and supplemented her income by taking work as an extra in Hollywood, including appearances in The Prodigal (1955) and The Ten Commandments (1956). She re-joined Gillespie for tours sponsored by the US State Department in 1956 and 1957, recorded with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers (1957), and formed her own all-women quintet in 1958. In 1959, she visited Europe with the show Free and Easy, for which Quincy Jones was music director. She accompanied Billy Eckstine with the Quincy Jones Orchestra on At Basin Street East (originally released October 1, 1961, for Verve Records).
In the 1960s she began collaborating with pianist Randy Weston, arranging compositions (primarily his own) for mid-size to large ensembles. This association, especially strong in the 1960s, would be rekindled in the late 1980s and 1990s until her death. In addition, she worked for a variety of leaders including Milt Jackson, Clark Terry, and Johnny Griffin, as well as working as an arranger for various Motown records, even appearing on albums by Ray Charles and others. In 1971 she was chosen as Musical Arranger for a Stax Records recording artist named Calvin Scott whose album was being produced by Stevie Wonder's first producer Clarence Paul. On this project she worked with Joe Sample and Wilton Felder of the Jazz Crusaders, blues guitarist Arthur Adams, and jazz drummer Paul Humphrey. Due to the financial issues at Stax Records when this album was released in 1972 it did not chart, but Melba's arrangements on the album are some of her finest work. In 1973, however, she once again took a break from her US-based musical projects, moving to Jamaica to teach at the Jamaica School of Music for six years (1973–79), before returning to the USA to lead her own bands.
During her time in Jamaica, she composed and arranged the music for the classic 1975 comedy film Smile Orange (starring Carl Bradshaw, who three years earlier starred in the very first Jamaican film, The Harder They Come). The Smile Orange experience was probably her only known venture into composing reggae music (on which, in this case, she collaborated with playwright Trevor Rhone for the lyrics). Sadly, a soundtrack album for Smile Orange was never released or made available.
She was forced to give up playing in 1985 after a stroke left her partially paralyzed, but she continued to arrange music with Randy Weston. In 1987, she was awarded the “Jazz Masters Fellowship” of the National Endowment for the Arts. After suffering from repeated strokes, she died in Los Angeles, California, in 1999, a few days after a major tribute to her and Randy Weston’s music at Harvard University. Her funeral, held at St. Peter’s in Manhattan, featured extensive musical performances by Weston with Jann Parker (performing Liston’s composition “African Lady”), as well as by Chico O’Farrill’s Afro-Cuban ensemble and by Lorenzo Shihab (vocals).
Melba Liston made a reputation as an important jazz arranger, no small achievement in a field generally dominated by men. Her early work with the high-profile bands of Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie shows a strong command of the big-band and bop idioms. However, perhaps her most important work was written for the Weston, with whom she worked for four decades from the early 1960s. The critically acclaimed albums Uhuru Afrika (1960) and Highlife (1963), both of which feature exclusively Weston’s compositions with Liston’s arrangements for large ensemble, are considered jazz masterpieces. Uhuru Afrika, as described in the liner notes by Langston Hughes (who penned lyrics for the second movement), is “a composed composition...and an ordered and arranged composition”; the work, broken into four long movements, demonstrates Liston’s abilities to blend African-oriented rhythms and percussion with jazz horn-playing and orchestration in a large-scale form. In many respects, this album and Highlife, three years later, can be seen as comparable works to those of Miles Davis and Gil Evans of roughly the same period, but oriented toward Africa and African musics instead of the European-influenced harmonies and melodies in the Davis/Evans works. These two Weston-Liston also presage the rising awareness of and explicit prominence given to African music in the 1960s, especially as part of the free jazz/”New Thing” movement.
Liston was a woman in a male-dominated profession, and she excelled anyway. Although some consider her an unsung hero, she is very highly regarded in the jazz community. Liston was a trailblazer in her own right, as a trombonist and a woman. She was right up there with the big boys all the way through her career. Although dealing largely with misogyny and sexism through her career, Liston did have a few favorites with whom she played, one of them being Dizzy Gillespie. From the 1940s through the 1960s, she was the first woman trombonist to work in the leading big bands of Gillespie, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones, Gerald Wilson, and Clark Terry.
Liston’s musical style reflects bebop and post-bop sensibilities, not surprising given her stints working with such major bop figures as Dexter Gordon, Dizzy Gillespie, and Art Blakey. Even in her earliest recorded work-—such as Gordon’s “Mischievous Lady,” a tribute to her-—her solos show an apt blend of motivic and linear improvisation, though they seem to make less use of extended harmonies and alterations. Her well-known solo on Gillespie’s version of Debussy’s “My Reverie” shows her strong sense of lyricism, as well.
Her arrangements, especially those with Weston, show a constant flexibility that transcends her musical upbringing in the bebop 1940s, whether working in the styles of swing, post-bop, African musics, or even Motown. Her strong command of rhythmic gestures, grooves, and polyrhythms is particularly notable (again, as illustrated especially in Uhuru Afrika and Highlife). Her instrumental parts demonstrate an active use of harmonic possibilities; although her arrangements suggest relatively subdued interest in the explorations of free jazz ensembles, they certainly use an extended tonal vocabulary, rich with altered harmonic voicings, thick layering, and dissonance. Her work throughout her career has been well received by both critics and audiences alike.
As leader/principal artist
Melba Liston and Her ’Bones (leader, soloist, composer/arranger, appears on all tracks; Fresh Sound 408, 2006 reissue of original 1958 MetroJazz Records recording; recorded 1956, 1958) Randy Weston/Melba Liston, Volcano Blues (arranger, all tracks; Verve/Gitanes 519 269-2; recorded February 1993)
- Dexter Gordon (leader) and others, Bebop Revisited, Vol. I (soloist, bandmember, appears on tracks 1-4; Xanadu 120, 2001 reissue of original 1947 Dial/Spotlite recordings)
- Dizzy Gillespie (leader), Birks Works: The Verve Big-Band Sessions (soloist, bandmember, solos on track 13, disc 1, appears on all tracks; Verve 527900, 1995 compilation of 1956-1957 sessions)
- Dizzy Gillespie, Newport Live (soloist, bandmember, appears on all tracks; Polygram 46LR, 1992 reissue of 1957 live recording)
- Art Blakey, The Jazz Messengers Plus Four (soloist, bandmember, appears on all tracks; Cadet LP4049; recorded 1957)
- Art Blakey, Big Band (?; Riverside 1957)
As non-soloing bandmember
Gerald Wilson (leader), Gerald Wilson and his Orchestra: 1945-1946 (bandmember, appears on ? tracks; Arbors ARCD 671, 1997 reissue of Classics 976)
With Art Blakey
- Hold On, I'm Coming (Limelight, 1965)
With Betty Carter
- Out There with Betty Carter (Peacock, 1958)
With Johnny Griffin
- White Gardenia (Riverside, 1961)
With Milt Jackson
- For Someone I Love (Riverside, 1963)
With Elvin Jones
- And Then Again (Atlantic, 1965)
With Gloria Lynne
- Lonely and Sentimental (Everest 90490)
With Junior Mance
- The Soul of Hollywood (Jazzland, 1962)
With Charles Mingus
- The Complete Town Hall Concert (Blue Note, 1962 )
With Calvin Scott
- I'm Not Blind, I Just Can't See (STAX STS-2046, 1972)
With Randy Weston
- Little Niles (United Artists, 1958)
- Destry Rides Again (United Artists, 1959)
- Live at the Five Spot (United Artists, 1959)
- Uhuru Afrika (Roulette, 1960)
- Highlife (Colpix, 1963)
- Tanjah (Polydor, 1973)
- Khepera (Verve 314 557 821-2)
- The Spirits of Our Ancestors (Antilles 314-511-892-2)
- Earth Birth (Verve 3145370882)
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With Art Blakey
- Art Blakey Big Band (Bethlehem, 1957)
- Trane Whistle (Prestige, 1960)
With Dizzy Gillespie
- Jazz Recital (Norgran, 1955)
- World Statesman (Norgran, 1956)
- Dizzy in Greece (Verve, 1957)
- Birks' Works (Verve, 1957)
- Dizzy Gillespie at Newport (Verve, 1957)
With Ernie Henry
- Last Chorus (Riverside, 1956–57)
With Milt Jackson
- Big Bags (Riverside, 1962)
With Sam Jones
- The Chant (Riverside, 1961)
With Freddie McCoy
- Listen Here (Prestige, 1968)
With Shirley Scott
- Roll 'Em: Shirley Scott Plays the Big Bands (Impulse!, 1966)
- Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Spring 2014). Special issue devoted to Melba Liston.
- Ammer, Christine. 2001. Unsung: A History of Women in American Music, 2nd edn. Portland, OR: Amadeus.
- Dahl, Linda. 1984. Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen. New York: Pantheon.
- Hughes, Langston. 1960. Liner notes, Uhuru Afrika. (See discography.)
- Voce, Steve. 1999, April 27. Obituary, in The Independent, London.
- Watrous, Peter. 1999, April 30. "Melba Liston, 73, Trombonist And Prominent Jazz Arranger", The New York Times, C21.
- Interview of Melba Liston, part of Central Avenue Sounds Oral History Project, Center for Oral History Research, UCLA Library Special Collections, University of California, Los Angeles.
- "Melba Liston Tribute Page", MySpace.
- Melba Liston: Bones of An Arranger (NPR Music).
- "Melba Liston: A Sensitive and Daring Arranger", The Scotsman.
- "Melba Liston and Her 'Bones", All About Jazz.
- Melba Liston at All About Jazz.
- Melba Liston at Hard Bop Homepage.
- Melba Liston at Fuller Up.
- Melba Liston Collection, Columbia College Chicago:
- Melba Liston at Women in Jazz.
- Melba Liston with Randy Weston.
- Melba Liston biography at National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters.
- Melba Liston at Jazz Institute of Chicago.
- "Melba Liston's Slide to Success".