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).
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 Basic, Duke Ellington and Dizzy
Gillespie. Her long association with her mentor the pianist and composer Randy
Weston took her to the forefronts of modern jazz and Tony Bennett, Billie
Holiday, Abbey Lincoln and Diana Ross were amongst the vocalists that commissioned
work from her.
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 traveling
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
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 school
friends introduced Liston to Alma Hightower, a music teacher who ran a big
band made up of children from the neighborhood. "She was okay as a music teacher
and I loved her."
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 Los Angeles's Lincoln Theatre.
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,
In 1943 the theatre
stopped hating 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 school friend. 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. I was a slow player, a ballads and blues
player. My ear was alright 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 al that time included 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. 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 were n' 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. It wasn't a happy scene and we were
on the band bus day and night. 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.
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 Slate 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.
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 and also arranged albums for Marvin
Gave, Bill, Eckstine and The Supremes.
She worked often with 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, staving there until 1999.
She taught at the University of the West Indies and was director of popular
music studies at 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 1999 Kansas City Women's
Jazz Festival. Although she dropped the all-girl line up, the band survived
flourished and in all the two made 10 albums together: