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 Fuller Up The Dead Musician Directory 
 
Melba  Doretta Liston
Melba Liston 
April 23, 1999
Age 73
OBITUARY 
BIOGRAPHY  
LINKS
 
 
 
 

OBITUARY 
        
 The Independent, London
                      
                    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 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 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 school friends introduced Liston to Alma Hightower, a music 
                    teacher who ran a big band made up of children from the neighbourhood. “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, 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 school friend. Gordon had composed 
                    “Mischievous Lady”, one of the numbers they recorded, as a tribute to Liston. 

                    “My big infIuences 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 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 at 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,” 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. 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 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 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 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  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 six albums 
                    together – “Blues  to Africa”, “High Life”, “Little Niles”, “Spirits of Our 
                    Ancestors”, “Tanjah”, “Music of the New African Nations” and “Volcano Blues” . 
                    “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. From then on she was 
                    confined to a wheel chair. 

                    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. Because of illness she was unable to attend, but heard a recording 
                    of the programme at her home. 
 

 
 Jazz Central Station 
Honored Trombonist/Arranger/Composer Melba Liston Dies
                  by Drew Wheeler  

                  Trombonist Melba Liston, who stylishly bypassed 
                  the restrictions of the male-dominated music world 
                  to play beside such leading artists as Dizzy 
                  Gillespie, Count Basie and Quincy Jones, died at 
                  age 73 on April 23 at Daniel Freeman Memorial 
                  Hospital in Inglewood, Calif. According to her friend, 
                  bandleader Leslie Drayton, Liston had grown 
                  increasingly ill in recent weeks. She had been 
                  confined to a wheelchair since a stroke in 1985.  

                  At a time when the only women to reach the top 
                  echelons of jazz were singers or perhaps pianists, 
                  Melba Liston gained access to bands led by some 
                  of the most prominent leaders of the genre. Her 
                  trombone could be heard backing the likes of Billie 
                  Holiday, Cannonball Adderley, Betty Carter, Oliver 
                  Nelson, Jimmy Smith, Dinah Washington, Eddie 
                  "Lockjaw" Davis and many others. By the 1960s, 
                  she had become a sought-after arranger who 
                  played a major role in the work of Randy Weston, 
                  and also worked with Johnny Griffin and Milt 
                  Jackson. In 1987, she was honored by the National 
                  Endowment For The Arts as an American Jazz 
                  Master.  

                  Drayton wrote in a local newspaper of Liston, 
                  calling her his "musical mother." He added, "Her 
                  creativity, artistry, and sensitivity reached a height 
                  reserved only for a select few. I'll miss her physical 
                  being, but her spirit will live on through her music."  

                  Melba Doretta Liston was born in Kansas City, 
                  Missouri in 1926, but moved to Los Angeles at age 
                  11, and would go on to study trombone and 
                  harmony at Polytech High School. While still a 
                  teenager, Liston played--and wrote her first 
                  charts--for the pit band at Los Angeles' Lincoln 
                  Theater, led by former Chick Webb associate 
                  Bordin Ali. From 1944-47, she played and arranged 
                  for Gerald Wilson's band, and was then with the 
                  Count Basie Orchestra in 1948-49. One of her 
                  best-known recordings was "Mischievous Lady," 
                  recorded with Dexter Gordon in 1947. In 1950 she 
                  joined Dizzy Gillespie's band.  

                  "She was a great lady," said saxophonist Phil 
                  Woods, who shared the bandstand with Liston in 
                  several different bands in the '50s. "It's not easy for 
                  anybody to make a living in jazz, and there's 
                  certainly more pitfalls and more hurdles for a 
                  woman than man, that's for goddamned sure," said 
                  Woods. "But Melba always had the right 
                  temperament. I never heard her complain. She was 
                  one of the cats, man. We respected Melba a great, 
                  great deal. She was always writing and trying to 
                  improve the quality of the band. And she was just 
                  such a nice person--the band was always a more 
                  gentlemanly-thing when Melba was around. That's 
                  a great sign of respect from musicians. I don't say 
                  we became angels, but I think it gave us a lot of 
                  class that we might not have had."  

                  After her stint with Gillespie, Liston largely dropped 
                  out of music, working for the Board of Education in 
                  Los Angeles until 1954. She rejoined Gillespie in 
                  1956-57, taking part in his U.S. State Dept. tours of 
                  the Near East and Latin America. In 1958, she 
                  moved to New York and briefly led an all-woman 
                  quintet. That same year, she started writing 
                  arrangements for Weston, as well as vocalist Gloria 
                  Lynne. She recorded a 1958 solo album for 
                  Metrojazz, And Her Bones, which featured an 
                  all-star trombone lineup of Slide Hampton, Jimmy 
                  Cleveland, Bennie Green, Frank Rehak, Al Grey 
                  and Benny Powell, with a rhythm section of Kenny 
                  Burrell, Jamil Nasser and Charlie Persip. Her 
                  long-standing association with Weston continued 
                  over the years, on albums African Sunrise, 
                  Tanjah, Spirits Of Our Ancestors, Volcano 
                  Blues, Earth Birth and last year's Khepera.  

                  Liston joined Quincy Jones' orchestra in 1959, 
                  which gained her a part for the European 
                  performances of the Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer 
                  musical Free And Easy, which featured band 
                  members Clark Terry, Julius Watkins and Jerome 
                  Richardson, as well as actor Robert Guillaume. 
                  Woods recalled Liston's role in the production: 
                  "They put her in long white gowns. We were all part 
                  of the action--the band was actually onstage. And 
                  Melba, being so beautiful, she was onstage more 
                  than the saxophones. She's got a great face." 
                  (Liston also played a bit part in the 1955 biblical 
                  epic The Prodigal, which starred Lana Turner.)  

                  In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Liston also 
                  continued her career in education, teaching in New 
                  York, Los Angeles and Jamaica. In 1979, she 
                  returned to her birthplace at the second Kansas 
                  City Women's Jazz Festival, after which she 
                  resumed to a more active musical career. In the 
                  early 1980s, she led the septet Melba Liston And 
                  Company. Despite her 1985 stroke, she continued 
                  to write music and arrangements with the aid of 
                  computer programs. Liston was brought onstage 
                  after the February 1998 performance of Weston's 
                  "Uhuru Afrika" at the Brooklyn Academy Of Music, 
                  and was the only participant to receive a standing 
                  ovation.  

                  Liston is survived by an aunt, Thalma Stattion, and 
                  several cousins. Details regarding her funeral 
                  arrangements were unavailable.  
 

 
 
 
       
 

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BIOGRAPHY
 
 
Born: Jan 13, 1926 in Kansas City, MO
A fine section trombonist, Melba Liston achieved her greatest fame as an arranger, particularly for her projects with Randy Weston. She grew up in California and played with Gerald Wilson's Orchestra starting in 1943. Her most notable recording as a soloist was with Dexter Gordon in 1947. Liston worked with Count Basie (1948-49) Dizzy Gillespie's big band (1949-50) and backed Billie Holiday but then spent a few years outside of music. She toured with and wrote for Dizzy Gillespie's orchestra (1956-57) and visited Europe with Quincy Jones's big band (1959), staying with that orchestra into 1961. Liston then became a freelance arranger, working on sessions led by Weston, Johnny Griffin and Milt Jackson, writing for the studios, teaching and occasionally playing.  A serious stroke has confined her to a wheelchair since 1985 but Melba Liston has written for several recent Randy Weston projects. -- Scott Yanow, All-Music Guide
 
 
  
 
 

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