Melba Liston (1926-1999) paved the way for women in jazz—especially trombonists and arrangers/composers. The world of jazz continues to be a male dominated field to this day. There may be many reasons for this: Jazz music has always had sexual associations—these associations are more easily made when women are not actually the ones performing the music, but rather the object of the music’s attention. Jazz has also historically had ties to drug use—something that women with values should not be seen associating with. It should be noted that all of these negative associations have nothing to do with the actual music of jazz, just the cultural aspects surrounding it. The only real consistent inclusion of women in jazz were as vocalists. While these women were often extremely talented musicians, they were often seen as a pretty face—another object for a man’s gaze. Melba Liston managed to make a long career as a jazz trombonist, composer, and arranger. She was highly regarded by her peers, who were some of the “jazz legends.” Liston managed to steer away from the politics and focus on her music.
Born 1926 in Kansas City, Missouri, Liston grew up in a musical family. Her mother bought her a trombone at a young age, and by the time she was eight years old, Liston was proficient enough on the instrument to perform on the local radio station. Liston was self-taught—a musical prodigy who even invented her own notation system based on numbering notes. When she was sixteen she won a trombone job in the pit band at the Lincoln Theater in Los Angeles, and she wrote arrangements for the band. Liston played in the bands of Gerald Wilson, Dexter Gordon, and Dizzy Gillespie before she re-joined Wilson’s band in 1949 and toured with Billie Holliday. Liston and the band experienced the ugliness of racial prejudice during a tour in the South. After the tour and experiencing the Jim Crow laws, Liston became disillusioned with music and left the scene for three years. She re-joined Dizzy’s band in 1956 and continued to write arrangements for the group.
1958 Liston recorded her first and only album as bandleader and trombonist entitled Melba and Her ‘Bones. The album featured her compositions and a lineup of great trombonists such as Slide Hampton, Jimmy Cleveland, Bennie Green, Frank Rehak, Al Grey, and Benny Powell. This album was re-released in 2006. After recording her album, Liston met Randy Weston, who was a musician known for combining jazz and African elements in his music. Liston and Weston began a 40+ year collaboration, and Liston wrote arrangements for many of his albums.
During the 1960s and 70s, Liston worked in New York playing in studios and making jazz arrangements. She was known by her colleagues especially for her lyrical and rhythmic writing / playing and her blues and ballads. Liston taught music courses at the Jamaica Institute of Music from 1973-79. She came back to the United States to play in the first all-woman jazz festival in Kansas City. Liston performed in an all-woman septet: “Melba Liston and Company.” The group later toured the world as a mixed gender ensemble.
1985, Liston suffered a debilitating stroke that left her paralyzed on her right side, effectively ending her performing career; however, she continued to compose using her left hand and computer programs. Liston was always highly regarded by her peers, and the men in the band insisted “she made them better.” Liston has received many honors as a musician. 1987 the National Endowment for the Arts named her a Jazz Master. 1993 the first International Women’s Brass Conference honored her as a Brass Woman Pioneer. 1995 she was interview by the Smithsonian for its prestigious Jazz Oral History project. When asked in the Smithsonian interview what advice she would give young women in music, Liston encouraged women to get an education and learn as much as they can. Liston’s contributions to the music world far exceed the realm of trombone. Not only did she arrange hundreds of tunes, but she charmed audiences with her soulful, beautiful trombone playing, and recorded an album where she led her male colleagues as an African American woman.