Obituary: Melba Liston

THE CODE of behaviour at ladies' finishing schools never recommended taking up the trombone. The instrument didn't rival the piano or the cello in drawing room decorum. And yet the only two well-known women trombonists were both glamorous to look at. Melba Liston was one of them and the English Annie Whitehead, assured enough to appear naked with her horn on the sleeve of her last CD, was the other.

Melba Liston certainly saw every side of show business. On one occasion she was stranded with Billie Holiday, both of them broke, in a hostile South Carolina, and on another she walked about playing a harp in the film The Ten Commandments (1956). She suffered the perils of being the only woman in travelling big bands. "Rapes and everything. I've been going through that stuff for all my life. `Yeah, well, you know, it's a broad and she's by herself.' I'd just go to the doctor and tell him, and that was that. But the older I got, the less it happened. I don't know how old I was," she laughed, "but it stopped all together."

It was her talents as a composer and arranger that distinguished her, rather than her work as an instrumentalist. She wrote scores for innumerable big bands including those of Quincy Jones, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie. Her long association with her mentor, the pianist and composer Randy Weston, took her to the forefront of modern jazz and Tony Bennett, Billie Holiday, Abbey Lincoln and Diana Ross were among the vocalists that commissioned work from her. She recalled,

I was born in Kansas City, Missouri, but I was raised between there and Kansas City, Kansas, where my grandparents were. I got my trombone when I was seven. They decided to form a music class at my elementary school and a travelling music store came with a variety of instruments. When I saw the trombone I thought how beautiful it looked and knew I just had to have one. No one told me that it was difficult to master. All I knew was that it was pretty and I wanted one.

She had problems using the slide: "I was tall then, but I didn't reach to sixth and seventh position. I used to have to turn my head sideways." By the time she was eight, Liston was good enough to play solo trombone on the local radio. Her mother had found a trombone teacher for her. "He wasn't right. I don't know how, but I knew. So I said no, cancelled, and went on my own. I was always good in my ears, so I could play by ear."

The family moved to Los Angeles in 1937. Liston was bright enough to join high school there in the eighth grade, although she had only been in the sixth in Kansas. "My music teacher at the school was real nice. He rode home with me and asked my mother could he adopt me. He said he wanted to further my music and he wanted to send me off to some teachers. But I didn't go, I just wanted to stay home with my mom." Some of her schoolfriends introduced Liston to Alma Hightower, a music teacher who ran a big band made up of children from the neighbourhood. But the two fell out after four years when, at 16, Liston joined the musicians' union. Her teacher thought that she wasn't ready for such a step.

Liston joined the pit band at the Lincoln Theatre in Los Angeles:

They would have a movie and then the show would take over. The all-girl Sweethearts of Rhythm band played at the Lincoln and they wanted to take me with them when they finished. I was riding with two of them and they got to carrying on - I mean not carrying on with each other. And I said, "I'll be back", and I went and hid. Then I went and told my mother. I went on back with the band at the Lincoln. I was writing music by this time for this time for different acts who would come in and didn't have their music. I was at the Lincoln for about a year, I guess.

In 1943 the theatre stopped having shows and Liston joined a new big band being formed by the trumpeter Gerald Wilson, who had just left the Jimmy Lunceford band. Wilson's band was good enough to go out on tour and when it reached New York took over from Duke Ellington at the Apollo Theatre. It made records back in Los Angeles, and Liston also recorded in a small group with the tenorist Dexter Gordon, an old schoolfriend. Gordon had composed "Mischievous Lady", one of the numbers they recorded, as a tribute to Liston. "My big influences were Tommy Dorsey and Lawrence Brown, but I didn't work towards being a front-line soloist," she said. "I was a slow player, a ballads and blues player. My ear was all right but I was involved in arranging all the time and didn't go jamming and stuff like that."

Liston stayed with Gerald Wilson until in 1948 the band broke up in New York. She and Wilson joined Dizzy Gillespie's progressive big band that at that time included the saxophonists John Coltrane and Paul Gonsalves and the pianist John Lewis. "That was a fantastic band and so different to anything that had ever happened in California," said Liston. "The music, the whole attitude and personality of the band was so exciting, I just couldn't believe it."

When Gillespie broke the band up in 1949, Liston went again with Gerald Wilson, who had been hired to form a band to accompany Billie Holiday on a tour of the South. "It was a little ahead for people down there. They weren't ready for Billie Holiday and this Bebop band, what they really wanted was dance music. The farther we got, the smaller the audience became and by the time we reached South Carolina there was just nobody. We finally made it to Kansas City and then sent for money from Los Angeles. It was two days getting to us. So we had a lot of oatmeal."

Liston was so disillusioned that she left the band and gave up music. She returned to Los Angeles where, for three years, she took a job as an administrator for the Board of Education. She temporarily gave up the trombone, but continued to compose and arrange. "The job was good experience and brought me out a little. I used to be very shy and hardly ever spoke to strangers, so it kind of freed me up." At this point she had a brief subsidiary career as a film actress. She said of this experience:

I had a long thing with Lana Turner and walked around behind her playing a harp in The Prodigal (1955) and was a member of the palace orchestra in The Ten Commandments. I was tall and skinny then and they said that had they known about me sooner they could have used me in several of those Egyptian movies. I never really took acting seriously. It was nice doing those movies but they're all crazy out there in Hollywood.

In 1956 Gillespie was invited to form a big band to tour the Middle East and Asia on behalf of the State Department. Liston gave up the administrative job and rejoined the band. She returned to it the following year when the State Department sent Gillespie to South America. This was a historic band and it had some of Liston's best writing at the heart of its library. Her best arrangements for it included "Annie's Dance", "My Reverie" , "Stella By Starlight" and "The Gypsy", all of which were recorded. Fellow musicians abused her at this time: "When I started going with Gerald Wilson I was okay because I had his support so I didn't have to worry. But when I went back into Dizzy's band, it was the same thing all over again." She appeared with Gillespie's band at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1957, and the subsequent recording survives as one of the most exciting of all big-band albums. Liston played a powerful solo on the piece "Cool Breeze".

Quincy Jones had been a trumpeter in Gillespie's band and when he formed a band to tour in Europe with the show "Free and Easy" with music by Harold Arlen he asked Liston to join. "Several of us who were in Dizzy's band went with Quincy's orchestra. I was writing all the time for that band and Quincy would write the light tunes. They were his kind of thing. Ernie Wilkins wrote the hard-swinging Basie-type numbers and I did the ballads and standards. We had a nice little family circle going." Despite its popularity the package hit financial problems, and the musicians had great difficulty getting back to New York where, loyal to Jones, they rejoined his band when he put it together again.

Liston spent most of the Sixties working in New York freelancing as an arranger and playing on studio sessions. She was house arranger and conductor for the Riverside record label. She scored the music for albums by Milt Jackson, Randy Weston, Gloria Lynne and Johnny Griffin. She also arranged albums for Marvin Gaye, Billy Eckstine and the Supremes. She worked often with the trumpeter Clark Terry and they briefly co-led a big band. She also played for Charlie Mingus, appearing at his infamous New York Town Hall concert of 1962.

But the most important event of the period was the establishment of her long-term musical partnership with Randy Weston who was also working for Riverside. Initially he employed her to put flesh onto his compositions. "Melba is incredible; she hears what I do and then expands it," said the composer. "She will create a melody that sounds like I created it. She's just a great, great arranger."

Returning to Los Angeles in the late Sixties she worked with youth orchestras. She moved to Jamaica in 1973, staying there until 1979. She taught at the University of the West Indies and the Jamaica Institute of Music in Kingston. On her return to Los Angeles she formed an all-girl septet called Melba Liston and Company. The group was the main attraction at the 1979 Kansas City Women's Jazz Festival. Although she dropped the all-girl line up, the band survived until 1983.

The partnership with Weston flourished and in all the two made many albums together, including Blues to Africa, High Life, Little Niles, Spirits of Our Ancestors, Tanjah, Music of the New African Nations, Volcano Blues and Music of the New African Nations. "We never said it directly," said Weston, explaining the philosophy of their composing,

but we both knew that to do a recording we would want to have the older musicians to give us that foundation, and then we would get the younger musicians on top. The older musicians have the know-how, they know all the secret things that we don't know about music. Melba always made sure that we would have that kind of base.

Liston was due to appear at the Camden Jazz Festival in 1986 but was prevented from doing so by the first of several strokes, and from then on was confined to a wheelchair. Subsequent strokes forced her to give up playing, but she continued to compose and arrange. Last week a concert was given in her and Randy Weston's honour at Harvard University.

Melba Doretta Liston, trombonist, composer and arranger: born Kansas City, Missouri 13 January 1926; married; died Los Angeles 23 April 1999.

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?