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.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies