Becoming an arranger, composer and instrumentalist in the jazz world in the 1940s was not easy for women. Melba Doretta Liston had to overcome challenges of race and gender to become a well-known trombone player, composer and arranger, creating music with many jazz greats of the 20th century such as Gerald Wilson, Dexter Gordon, Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones and Randy Weston.
“I had to prove myself, like Jackie Robinson,” Liston said years later. And she did just that. She became recognized as the only female jazz trombonist to stand in comparison with the best of her male counterparts. In the 1950s, she was almost always the only woman musician in traveling bands, but as she once said, the horn saved her from sadness in an industry dominated by men.
Born in Kansas City in 1926, Liston fell in love with the trombone when she was only seven years old. She recalled seeing one: “just beautiful, standing up in the shop window like a mannequin, and I was just mesmerized by it… it just did something to me.” Her mother bought the trombone for her. Her guitar-playing grandfather encouraged her to play it and by the following year, she was playing on the radio.
In 1937, she and her mother moved to Los Angeles, where she joined youth bands after having studied with Alma Hightower, a teacher who helped build her foundation in music. By the mid-1940s, Liston had entered the jazz scene in Los Angeles, playing with and writing for trumpeter Gerald Wilson’s progressive big-band. She also worked with the up-and-coming musicians of the bebop scene and tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon. She recorded one of her her early compositions, “Warm Mood,” with Wilson’s orchestra.
Liston later joined Dizzy Gillespie doing arrangements for his progressive big band. Soon, she was touring with Count Basie and Billie Holliday. Thanks to segregation and other challenges, Liston stopped performing music and taught for several years in the 1950s. She even appeared as an extra in Hollywood films including The Prodigal and The Ten Commandments.
During this period, Gillespie convinced her to rejoin his orchestra and they toured the Middle East and South America. She recorded an album under her own name, and as her arranging career bloomed, she arranged an entire album of music for the up-and-coming singer Gloria Lynne. Liston also worked with Quincy Jones for the show Free And Easy and formed a musical partnership with pianist Randy Weston. This partnership lasted until her death in 1999, producing albums such as The Spirits of Our Ancestors and Volcano Blues.
Before her death, she had worked with Diana Ross and Tony Bennett and had been a jazz director at the Jamaica school of music. She was there for five years, and she composed and arranged the music for the 1975 classic film Smile Orange, which was her only known venture into composing reggae music.
In 1979 when she returned to the U.S., she formed an all-female band and performed at the Kansas City Women’s Jazz Festival. Sadly, she suffered a stroke in 1985 that left her partially paralyzed. She could no longer play her favorite instrument, the trombone, but she continued to compose and arrange. One of the few women to succeed as both a jazz instrumentalist and an arranger, Liston married three times before her death in 1999 at the age of 73.
“She was simply a genius who had a very original way of writing arrangements,” Weston said of Liston, who came to be known as the “first lady of trombone”.