Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Melba Doretta Liston, 13 January 1926, Kansas City MO; d 23 April 1999, Los Angeles) Trombonist, sometime singer, composer, very prolific and talented arranger. She took up the trombone when she was still too small to reach all the positions because she thought it was a pretty instrument. Her family moved to Los Angeles when she was 11 and she began working in the Lincoln Theatre pit band at 16; Dexter Gordon was a classmate. When the Lincoln closed, composer and bandleader Gerald Wilson was forming a band and she went on the road for the first time. She married Wilson, recorded with him and in the late '40s with Gordon, played in the legendary Dizzy Gillespie big band of '48-9, then Wilson was hired as music director on a Billie Holiday tour of the South '50, and Liston was supposed to keep an eye on Holiday and keep her out of trouble, but the tour was a financial disaster and the band ended up stranded.

Then the big band era was pretty much over and Liston did not enjoy jamming all night; discouraged, she went to work for the Board of Education for four years. She learned a lot, especially self-confidence; she married again, and later told Sally Placksin, 'I tried marriage three times, and every time . . . I would put the horn down and just be wife. Then the next time they'd see me with the horn, they'd say, "Uh-oh, there goes number two". . .I got rid of the husband, quit the job, and picked up my horn.' When she was back in the music business Dizzy called, and she went on his famous international tour for the State Department '56-7, then toured Europe with Quincy Jones's big band '59, acting and playing in the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer musical Free and Easy. She had to put up with casual sexual abuse by the men in the bands, until she had reached a certain age and it just stopped.

She was busiest in the 1960s, working for or with Count Basie, Tony Bennett, Solomon Burke, Billy Eckstine, Duke Ellington, Eddie Fisher, Marvin Gaye, Johnny Griffin, Milt Jackson, Abbey Lincoln, Gloria Lynne, Charles Mingus, Diana Ross, Clark Terry and others. She settled in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1973, and served as a director at the Jamaican School of Music for over five years: at first the kids didn't know anything except reggae, but she broadened their horizons until her students had spread throughout the Jamaican school system. In 1979 the directors of the Women's Jazz Festival in Kansas City begged her to come and take part; then she played a concert at a Salute to Women in Jazz in New York City, and she realized she was back in the business again, so she formed her own band, Melba Liston and Company in 1980. As a trombonist she had been easily bored, playing in unison a step down from the trumpets in conventional swing band arrangements, so when she was writing she tried to give each instrument something fun to do; her unusual arrangements puzzled musicians until they played them and found that they actually liked them. Her best later work was done for pianist and composer Randy Weston, who said that she heard his music the same way he did, and put flesh on his ideas. A series of strokes finally stopped her from playing the trombone, but she kept on with her writing. See Sally Placksin's book Jazzwomen: 1900 to the Present, Their Words, Lives and Music.