Photograph of Melba Liston performing on Art Ford’s Jazz Party television programme in 1958. Image Credits: Nancy Miller-Elliott/Courtesy of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University.

Music Period: 20th Century & beyond

Location: America

Claim to Fame: the first women trombonist to play in big bands, and later became a prominent composer and arranger.

Melba Liston was born on 13th January 1926 in Kansas City, Missouri. As a child, she often travelled from her home to Kansas City, Kansas to stay with grandparents. It was whilst staying with her grandparents that Melba received her first trombone when she was just seven years old. Abandoning the piano for the trombone, she started teaching herself how to play popular jazz classics and church songs of the day by picking them up by ear. All the time, her grandparents encouraged her to play and develop musically. The radio was a big influence with the likes of Duke Ellington and Tommy Dorsey belting out impressive tunes daily. Melba played whenever she could as a result of her grandparents’ encouragements, and started performing on radio at the age of eight.

The family moved to Los Angeles in 1937 when Melba was ten years old. She was a naturally bright student and joined the eighth grade in the local high school. Whilst at school Melba played with a community jazz orchestra and met her first music teacher, Miss Hightower. For most of 1938, the orchestra played in churches all over. The orchestra consisted of boys for the large part, as so many were at the time. It was only later did more girls start playing with the group. At the age of 16, the relationship Melba had developed with her music teacher fell apart. This came when Melba joined the American Federation of Musicians to start working as a professional musician.

Melba soon joined the house band at Lincoln Theatre with Bardu Ali as the bandleader. She worked here one night a week on weeknights, two shows on Saturday, and three on Sunday. The music changed once a week with one rehearsal a week to learn new music and arrangements. As always, Melba was the only girl in the band, but it was around this time that she started writing music for the different acts who arrived at the theatre to perform and didn’t have music. Melba then started arranging music for the band towards the end of her year stint at the theatre, earning about a hundred dollars a week.

In 1943, the theatre stopped having the shows, and Melba joined the Gerald Wilson big band after word spread about her ability as an exceptional trombonist. Melba stayed with the band for the next five years, touring across America. It was whilst on tour that Melba experienced ‚Äúrapes and everything‚Äù from her male bandmates, as the dangers of being the only woman travelling with a male dominated big band became a reality. In later life, Melba talks of this time with reluctance, and when she does, it is in a matter-of-fact tone of acceptance. The only thing for her to do was tell the doctor afterwards. After she left in 1955 to join a new band created by Dizzy Gillespie, the whole experience happened all over again because she was ‚Äúa broad and… by herself.‚Äù As Melba got older, the less it happened, and eventually stopped altogether. Despite this, Melba continued touring with the band, and worked with the likes of Billie Holiday as part of the Lady Day Band and Count Basie. In New York, the band played the following week after Jimmie Lunceford at the Apollo Theatre.

Rare footage of Melba Liston in an all American girl band can be viewed here:

After years on the road trying to make it as a female musician, Melba became disgusted with the industry, and gave up music completely. She took a job with the Los Angeles City Board of Education in the early 1950s and settled down. It was some years later when Melba picked up playing again with some work in movies that saw her part of The Ten Commandments film in 1956. Melba then met up with Dizzy Gillespie and joined his bebop big band. She travelled with the band to the Middle East, Asia, and South America on State Department tours from 1956 – 1957 with both tours featuring her arrangements.

In 1958, Melba recorded her Melba and Her Bones album. This would be the only album she would record as a leader. In the same year, Melba met pianist and composer Randy Weston whilst playing in New York with the Dizzy Gillespie big band. This meeting sparked a creative partnership that would last for the next forty years. Together they produced several critically acclaimed albums, including The Spirits of Our Ancestors and Volcano Blues.

 To see Melba Liston live with the Quincy Jones Band, click here.

Melba went on to join the Quincy Jones band in 1959, and stayed with the band as one of two female members until 1961. The 1960s saw her freelancing as an arranger and playing studio sessions, whilst writing for the Duke Ellington orchestra, and singers like Tony Bennett and Eddie Fisher. This continued throughout the 1970s/80s when she would also lead her own groups. In 1973, Melba moved to Jamaica where she taught Popular Music at the Jamaica Institute of Music until she returned to Los Angeles in 1979. On her return, Melba formed the all-girl septet called Melba Liston & Company.

This incredible woman stayed in music right until the end. A few weeks before a performance in 1985, Melba suffered a stroke that left her partially paralyzed and unable to play. Melba continued to write music with some persuasion from her friend Randy Western, and the help of a computer to produce arrangements. Yet, despite all her achievements, and going through life with the constant threat of rape, we rarely hear her name mentioned alongside the famed male jazz musicians of the era.

For more information on Melba Liston, check out the following websites:

-Claire Amundson
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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