Melba Liston

Last updated
Melba Liston
Melba Liston.jpg
Liston in 1947
Background information
Birth nameMelba Doretta Liston
Born(1926-01-13)January 13, 1926
Kansas City, Missouri, U.S.
DiedApril 23, 1999(1999-04-23) (aged 73)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Genres Jazz
Occupation(s)Musician, arranger
Years active1940s–1970s

Melba Doretta Liston (January 13, 1926 – April 23, 1999) was an American jazz trombonist, arranger, and composer. Other than those playing in all-female bands she was the first woman trombonist to play in big bands during the 1940s and 1960s, but as her career progressed she became better known as an arranger, [1] particularly in partnership with pianist Randy Weston. [2] [3] Other major artists with whom she worked include Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane and Count Basie. [4]


Life and career

Liston was born in Kansas City, Missouri. At the age of seven, Melba's mother purchased her a trombone. Her family encouraged her musical pursuits, as they were all music lovers. [5] Liston was primarily self-taught, but she was "encouraged by her guitar-playing grandfather", with whom she spent significant time learning to play spirituals and folk songs. [6] At the age of eight, she was good enough to be a solo act on a local radio station. [7] At the age of 10, she moved to Los Angeles, California. She was classmates with Dexter Gordon, and friends with Eric Dolphy. [6] After playing in youth bands and studying with Alma Hightower, she joined the big band led by Gerald Wilson in 1944. [8]

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 [8] when Wilson disbanded his orchestra in 1948. Liston performed in a supporting role and was nervous when asked to take solos, but with encouragement she became more comfortable as a featured voice in bands. [2] She toured with Count Basie, 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. 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, appearing with Lana Turner in The Prodigal (1955) [9] and in The Ten Commandments (1956). Liston returned to Gillespie for tours sponsored by the U.S. State Department in 1956 and 1957, recorded with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers (1957), and formed an 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, released on October 1, 1961, by Verve.

In the late 1950s she began collaborating with pianist Randy Weston, [10] 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 with Milt Jackson, Clark Terry, and Johnny Griffin, as well as working as an arranger for Motown, appearing on albums by Ray Charles. In 1964, she helped establish the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra. [11] In 1971 she was chosen as musical arranger for Stax recording artist Calvin Scott, whose album was being produced by Stevie Wonder's first producer, Clarence Paul. On this album she worked with Joe Sample and Wilton Felder of the Jazz Crusaders, blues guitarist Arthur Adams, and jazz drummer Paul Humphrey. In 1973, she moved to Jamaica to teach at the Jamaica School of Music for six years, before returning to the U.S. to lead her own bands.

During her time in Jamaica, she composed and arranged music for the 1975 comedy film Smile Orange , [12] starring Carl Bradshaw, who three years earlier starred in the first Jamaican film, The Harder They Come (1972).

She was forced to give up playing in 1985 after a stroke left her partially paralyzed, [8] 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 repeated strokes, she died in Los Angeles, California, in 1999 a few days after a tribute to her and Randy Weston's music at Harvard University. Her funeral at St. Peter's in Manhattan featured performances by Weston with Jann Parker, as well as by Chico O'Farrill's Afro-Cuban ensemble and by Lorenzo Shihab (vocals).

Composing and arranging

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 Randy Weston, with whom she collaborated on and off for four decades from the late 1950s into the 1990. [10]

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." [13]

Social meaning

Liston was a female in a profession of mostly males. Although some [14] consider her an unsung hero, [7] she is highly regarded in the jazz community. Liston was a trailblazer as a trombonist and a woman. She articulated difficulties of being a woman on the road:

"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." [15]

She goes on to recount the struggles she experienced as an African-American woman, which affected her musical career. [15] However, she generally spoke positively about the camaraderie with and support from male musicians. [2] Liston also dealt with larger issues of inequity in the music industry. One writer has said, "It was clear that she had to continually prove her credentials in order to gain suitable employment as a musician, composer, and arranger. She was not paid equitable scale and was often denied access to the larger opportunities as a composer and arranger." [15]

Musical style

Liston's musical style reflects bebop and post-bop sensibilities learned from Dexter Gordon, Dizzy Gillespie, and Art Blakey. Her earliest recorded work—such as Gordon's "Mischievous Lady" a tribute to her—her solos show a blend of motivic and linear improvisation, though they seem to make less use of extended harmonies and alterations. [5]

Her arrangements, especially those with Weston, show a flexibility that transcends her musical upbringing in the bebop 1940s, whether working in the styles of swing, post-bop, African musics, or Motown. [5] Her command of rhythmic gestures, grooves, and polyrhythms is particularly notable (as illustrated 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 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. [5]


As leader

As sidewoman or guest

With Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers

With Betty Carter

With Ray Charles

With Dizzy Gillespie

With Quincy Jones

With Jimmy Smith

With Dinah Washington

With Randy Weston

With others

Further reading

Related Research Articles

Kai Winding Danish-born American jazz musician and trombonist

Kai Chresten Winding was a Danish-born American trombonist and jazz composer. He is known for his collaborations with trombonist J. J. Johnson.

Walter Davis Jr. Musical artist

Walter Davis Jr. was an American hard bop pianist. An often remarkable and inventive bebop and hard bop pianist, Walter Davis Jr. once left the music world to be a tailor, but returned. A solid soloist, bandleader, and accompanist, he amassed a good body of work while never becoming a high-profile name even within the jazz community. Davis played with Babs Gonzales’ Three Bips & a Bop as a teen, then moved from Richmond to New York in the early ’50s. He played with Max Roach and Charlie Parker, recording with Roach in 1953. He joined Dizzy Gillespie’s band in 1956, and toured the Middle East and South America. He also played in Paris with Donald Byrd in 1958 and with Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers in 1959. After retiring from music for a while to run his tailor shop, Davis returned in the ’60s, producing records and writing arrangements for a local New Jersey group. He studied music in India in 1979, and played with Sonny Rollins in the early ’70s.

Slide Hampton American trombonist

Locksley Wellington Hampton was an American jazz trombonist, composer and arranger. As his nickname implies, Hampton's main instrument was slide trombone, but he also occasionally played tuba and flugelhorn.

Curtis Fuller American jazz musician

Curtis DuBois Fuller was an American jazz trombonist. He was a member of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and contributed to many classic jazz recordings.

Quentin "Butter" Jackson was an American jazz trombonist. In the early stage of his career, he worked with Cab Calloway for eight years. Later, he was a member of the Duke Ellington Orchestra and worked with Charles Mingus, Kenny Burrell, and others.

Bennie Green was an American jazz trombonist.

Al Grey American musician

Al Grey was an American jazz trombonist who was a member of the Count Basie orchestra. He was known for his plunger mute technique and wrote an instructional book in 1987 called Plunger Techniques.

Julius Watkins was an American jazz musician who played French horn. Described by AllMusic as "virtually the father of the jazz French horn", Watkins won the Down Beat critics poll in 1960 and 1961 for Miscellaneous Instrument.

Albert J. "Budd" Johnson III was an American jazz saxophonist and clarinetist who worked extensively with, among others, Ben Webster, Benny Goodman, Big Joe Turner, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones, Count Basie, Billie Holiday and, especially, Earl Hines.

Ernest Andrew Royal was a jazz trumpeter. His older brother was clarinetist and alto saxophonist Marshal Royal, with whom he appears on the classic Ray Charles big band recording The Genius of Ray Charles (1959).

Sahib Shihab Musical artist

Sahib Shihab was an American jazz and hard bop saxophonist and flautist. He variously worked with Luther Henderson, Thelonious Monk, Fletcher Henderson, Tadd Dameron, Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Clarke, John Coltrane and Quincy Jones among others.

Jimmy Cleveland Musical artist

James Milton Cleveland was an American jazz trombonist born in Wartrace, Tennessee.

Charles Lawrence Persip, known as Charli Persip and formerly as Charlie Persip, was an American jazz drummer.

Frank Rehak was an American jazz trombonist. He began on piano and cello before switching to trombone. He worked with Gil Evans and Miles Davis. He also appeared with Davis on the broadcast "The Sounds of Miles Davis."

Leslie Spann Jr. was an American jazz guitarist and flautist. As a sideman he recorded with Nat Adderley, Benny Bailey, Bill Coleman, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Curtis Fuller, Red Garland, Benny Goodman, Sam Jones, Abbey Lincoln, Charles Mingus, Duke Pearson, Jerome Richardson, Charlie Shavers, Sonny Stitt, Billy Taylor, Randy Weston, and Ben Webster. As a leader he recorded only once, the album Gemini in 1961.

Marty Flax, born Martin Flachsenhaar, Jr. in New York City was an American jazz saxophonist. Flax also played flute, clarinet, and trombone

Benny Powell was an American jazz trombonist. He played both standard (tenor) trombone and bass trombone.

<i>I/We Had a Ball</i> 1965 studio album by Art Blakey, Milt Jackson, Oscar Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones, Chet Baker

I/We Had a Ball is an album consisting of jazz versions of songs from Jack Lawrence and Stan Freeman's musical I Had a Ball performed by Art Blakey, Milt Jackson, Oscar Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones and Chet Baker which was released by Limelight in 1965.

<i>Melba Liston and Her Bones</i> 1959 studio album by Melba Liston

Melba Liston and Her 'Bones is the sole album led by trombonist, arranger and composer Melba Liston, recorded for the MetroJazz label in 1958.


  1. Johnson, David (June 15, 2015). "Proving Herself: Melba Liston, Arranger And First Lady Of Trombone". Indiana Public Media. Retrieved November 1, 2020.
  2. 1 2 3 Smith, Jessie Carney, and Shirelle Phelps (eds), Notable Black American Women: Book 2. VNR AG, 1996, ISBN   0810391775, pp. 413–415.
  3. Oliver, Myrna (April 28, 1999). "Melba Liston; Jazz Trombonist, Composer". Los Angeles Times.
  4. Jones, Jae (October 19, 2018). "Melba D. Liston: First Woman Trombonist In Big Band Era". Black Then. Retrieved November 1, 2020.
  5. 1 2 3 4 Louise, Ava (April 10, 2018). "Melba and Her Horn – Accomplishments of the Great Melba Liston". All About Jazz.
  6. 1 2 Kaplan, Erica (Summer 1999). "Melba Liston: It's All from My Soul". The Antioch Review. 57 (3): 415–425. doi:10.2307/4613889. JSTOR   4613889.
  7. 1 2 Nicole Williams Sitaraman, "Melba Liston", The Girls in the Band.
  8. 1 2 3 Yanow, Scott. "Melba Liston". AllMusic. Retrieved January 15, 2019.
  9. Vacher, Paul (May 17, 1999). "Melba Liston: Respected first lady of the jazz trombone". The Guardian .
  10. 1 2 Ginell, Richard S. "Randy Weston". AllMusic. Retrieved January 15, 2019.
  11. "Whatever happened to...Melba Liston". Ebony Magazine. Johnson Publishing Company. June 1977. Retrieved May 30, 2015.
  12. Barg, Lisa; Tammy Kernodle; Dianthe Spencer; Sherrie Tucker (Spring 2014). "Introduction". Black Music Research Journal . 34 (1): 5–6. doi:10.5406/blacmusiresej.34.1.0001.
  13. Price III, Emmett G. (Spring 2014). "Melba Liston: Renaissance Woman". Black Music Research Journal. 34 (1): 163. doi:10.5406/blacmusiresej.34.1.0159. S2CID   194043078.
  14. Sitaraman, Nicole (September 25, 2011). "Unsung Women of Jazz #6 – Melba Liston". Curt's Jazz Cafe.
  15. 1 2 3 Price III, Emmett G. (Spring 2014). "Melba Liston: Renaissance Woman". Black Music Research Journal. 34 (1): 162. doi:10.5406/blacmusiresej.34.1.0159. S2CID   194043078.
  16. "Melba Liston | Credits | AllMusic". AllMusic. Retrieved 7 August 2018.