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Music Memories: Melba Liston

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Melba Liston was a jazz trombonist and arranger.

Melba Liston was born on January 13, 1926. Liston was a jazz trombonist and arranger, one of the few women to play in major bands of the big band era. She is perhaps best remembered today for her long association with pianist Randy Weston, for whom she worked as an arranger for many years.

Liston was born in Kansas City, Missouri, and began playing the trombone at the age of seven. She was mostly self-taught, as she never felt comfortable with the teachers her parents hired.

The family moved to Los Angeles when Liston was ten. She studied for a few years with Alma Hightower, a legendary jazz teacher whose students included Charles Mingus, Dexter Gordon, Roy Ayers, and Illinois Jacquet. Liston and Hightower had a falling out when Liston joined the musicians’ union at the age of 16. Hightower thought that Liston was too young to begin a professional career.

Liston went to work as a member of the pit band at the Lincoln Theater, and even at this young age, she was already writing arrangements when performers showed up without having prepared parts for the band.

She joined Gerald Wilson’s big band in 1944 and began recording with other bandleaders at about the same time, including some sessions with Dexter Gordon. Gordon’s “Mischievous Lady” was inspired by and dedicated to Liston.

Wilson’s band folded in 1948, and Liston continued working for various bands. She toured the southern United States with Billie Holiday in 1949 and found the touring life so difficult that she gave up performing for several years. She returned to Los Angeles and worked as a teacher. She also got occasional work as a film extra and can be seen as a member of the palace orchestra in the 1956 Biblical epic The Ten Commandments.

3 album covers of Melba Liston

In the mid-1950s, Liston rejoined Dizzy Gillespie’s band—she had worked with him for a short time in the late 1940s—for tours of Europe and South America sponsored by the State Department. Liston was more comfortable as a member of an ensemble and didn’t enjoy being put forward as a soloist, but two of her most memorable moments in the spotlight can be heard in her work with Gillespie. She takes a solo on “My Reverie,” recorded during the South American tour, and is featured on “Cool Breeze,” from Gillespie’s 1957 appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival.

In 1959, Liston recorded her only album as a bandleader, fronting a trombone-heavy band on Melba Liston and Her ‘Bones. That year, she also toured Europe as a member of Quincy Jones’s band. As had been the case with Gillespie, she was not only a member of the band, she also wrote arrangements; for Jones, she focused principally on ballads and standards. The Jones band from that tour can be heard on the album Q Live in Paris.

At about this time, Liston also began her longest lasting professional association, working with pianist Randy Weston. She played trombone in his band, and eventually became one of his principal arrangers. Their early work can be heard on the late 1950s albums Little Niles and Live at the Five Spot.

Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, Liston was much in demand as both performer and arranger, and worked with a wide range of jazz and R&B musicians. She was the arranger and conductor for Charles Mingus’ famously disastrous 1962 Town Hall concert, which suffered from too little rehearsal time. She worked with—just to pick a few of the best-known names—Dinah Washington, Cannonball Adderley, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Jimmy Smith, and Milt Jackson. At the end of the decade, she even spent some time writing arrangements for Motown and Stax; some of that work is heard on Kim Weston’s 1970 album Kim Kim Kim.

In 1973, Liston moved to Jamaica, where she taught at the Jamaica School of Music for six years. She returned to the United States in 1979, and formed Melba Liston and Company, a seven-piece ensemble that lasted until 1983; for most of its life, it was an all-female band.

After a stroke in 1985, Liston was no longer able to play the trombone but continued working as an arranger, primarily with Weston. Even as a non-performer, Liston’s contributions to Weston’s music were important enough that he shared billing with her on the 1993 album Volcano Blues. Liston and Weston collaborated on ten albums between 1958 and 1998; their final albums together were Earth Birth and Khepera. Liston died on April 23, 1999.

Geof Bradfield’s 2013 album Melba! is a suite in homage to Liston; each piece represents a different moment in her life. Little Melba and Her Big Trombone is a picture book biography of Liston, written by Katheryn Russell-Brown and illustrated by Frank Morrison.