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Melba Doretta Liston (January 13, 1926 – April 23, 1999) was an American jazz musician (trombone, compositions, musical arrangements). Her collaborations with pianist/composer Randy Weston, beginning in the early 1960s, are widely acknowledged as jazz classics.
Liston was born in Kansas City, Missouri. After playing in youth bands and studying with Alma Hightower and others, she joined the big band led by Gerald Wilson in 1943. She began to work with the emerging major names of the bebop scene in the mid-1940s. She recorded with saxophonist Dexter Gordon in 1947, and joined Dizzy Gillespie's big band (which included saxophonists John Coltrane, Paul Gonsalves, and pianist John Lewis) in New York for a time, when Wilson disbanded his orchestra in 1948. She toured with Count Basie for a time, and then with Billie Holiday (1949) but was so profoundly affected by the indifference of the audiences and the rigors of the road that she gave up playing.
She took a clerical job for some years, and supplemented her income by taking work as an extra in Hollywood, including appearances in The Prodigal (1955) and The Ten Commandments (1956). She re-joined Gillespie for tours sponsored by the US State Department in 1956 and 1957, recorded with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers (1957), and formed her own all-women quintet in 1958. In 1959, she visited Europe with the show Free and Easy, for which Quincy Jones was music director. She accompanied Billy Eckstine with the Quincy Jones Orchestra on At Basin Street East (originally released October 1, 1961, for Verve Records)
In the 1960s she began collaborating with pianist Randy Weston, arranging compositions (primarily his own) for mid-size to large ensembles. This association, especially strong in the 1960s, would be rekindled in the late 1980s and 1990s until her death. In addition, she worked for a variety of leaders including Milt Jackson, Clark Terry, and Johnny Griffin, as well as working as an arranger for various Motown records, even appearing on albums by Ray Charles and others. In 1971 she was chosen as Musical Arranger for a Stax Records recording artist named Calvin Scott whose album was being produced by Stevie Wonder's first producer Clarence Paul. On this project she worked with Joe Sample and Wilton Felder of the Jazz Crusaders, blues guitarist Arthur Adams, and jazz drummer Paul Humphrey. Due to the financial issues at Stax Records when this album was released in 1972 it did not chart, but Melba's arrangements on the album are some of her finest work. In 1973, however, she once again took a break from her U.S.-based musical projects, moving to Jamaica to teach at the Jamaica School of Music for six years (1973–1979), before returning to the USA to lead her own bands.
During her time in Jamaica, she composed and arranged the music for the classic 1975 comedy film Smile Orange (starring Carl Bradshaw, who three years earlier starred in the very first Jamaican film, The Harder They Come). The Smile Orange experience was probably her only known venture into composing reggae music (on which, in this case, she collaborated with playwright Trevor Rhone for the lyrics). Sadly, a soundtrack album for Smile Orange was never released or made available.
She was forced to give up playing in 1985 after a stroke left her partially paralyzed, but she continued to arrange music with Randy Weston. In 1987, she was awarded the “Jazz Masters Fellowship” of the National Endowment for the Arts. After suffering from repeated strokes, she died in Los Angeles, California, in 1999, a few days after a major tribute to her and Randy Weston’s music at Harvard University. Her funeral, held at St. Peter’s in Manhattan, featured extensive musical performances by Weston with Jann Parker (performing Liston’s composition, “African Lady”), as well as by Chico O’Farrill’s Afro Cuban ensemble and by Lorenzo Shihab (vocals).
Melba Liston made a reputation as an important jazz arranger, no small achievement in a field generally dominated by men. Her early work with the high-profile bands of Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie shows a strong command of the big-band and bop idioms. However, perhaps her most important work was written for the Weston, with whom she worked for four decades from the early 1960s. The critically acclaimed albums Uhuru Afrika (1960) and Highlife (1963), both of which feature exclusively Weston’s compositions with Liston’s arrangements for large ensemble, are considered jazz masterpieces. Uhuru Afrika, as described in the liner notes by Langston Hughes (who penned lyrics for the second movement), is “a composed composition...and an ordered and arranged composition”; the work, broken into four long movements, demonstrates Liston’s abilities to blend African-oriented rhythms and percussion with jazz horn-playing and orchestration in a large-scale form. In many respects, this album and Highlife three years later, can be seen as comparable works to those of Miles Davis and Gil Evans of roughly the same period, but oriented toward Africa and African musics instead of the European-influenced harmonies and melodies in the Davis/Evans works. These two Weston-Liston also presage the rising awareness of and explicit prominence given to African music in the 1960s, especially as part of the free jazz/”New Thing” movement.
Liston’s musical style reflects bebop and post-bop sensibilities, not surprising given her stints working with such major bop figures as Dexter Gordon, Dizzy Gillespie, and Art Blakey. Even in her earliest recorded work-—such as Gordon’s “Mischievous Lady,” a tribute to her-—her solos show an apt blend of motivic and linear improvisation, though they seem to make less use of extended harmonies and alterations. Her well-known solo on Dizzy Gillespie’s version of Debussy’s “My Reverie” shows her strong sense of lyricism, as well.
Her arrangements, especially those with Weston, show a constant flexibility that transcends her musical upbringing in the bebop 1940s, whether working in the styles of swing, post-bop, African musics, or even Motown. Her strong command of rhythmic gestures, grooves, and polyrhythms is particularly notable (again, as illustrated especially in Uhuru Afrika and Highlife). Her instrumental parts demonstrate an active use of harmonic possibilities; although her arrangements suggest relatively subdued interest in the explorations of free jazz ensembles, they certainly use an extended tonal vocabulary, rich with altered harmonic voicings, thick layering, and dissonance. Her work throughout her career has been well received by both critics and audiences alike.
Melba Liston and Her ’Bones (leader, soloist, composer/arranger, appears on all tracks; Fresh Sound 408, 2006 reissue of original 1958 MetroJazz Records recording; recorded 1956, 1958) Randy Weston/Melba Liston, Volcano Blues (arranger, all tracks; Verve/Gitanes 519 269-2; recorded February 1993)
Gerald Wilson (leader), Gerald Wilson and his Orchestra: 1945-1946 (bandmember, appears on ? tracks; Arbors ARCD 671, 1997 reissue of Classics 976)
With Milt Jackson
With Elvin Jones
With Gloria Lynne
With Calvin Scott
With Randy Weston
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With Dizzy Gillespie
With Ernie Henry
With Milt Jackson
With Sam Jones
With Shirley Scott
Ammer, Christine. 2001. Unsung: A History of Women in American Music, 2nd ed. Portland, OR: Amadeus.
Dahl, Linda. 1984. Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen. New York: Pantheon.
Hughes, Langston. 1960. Liner notes, Uhuru Afrika. (See discography.)
Voce, Steve. 1999, April 27. Obituary, in The Independent, London.
Watrous, Peter. 1999, April 30. Obituary in The New York Times, C21.
Melba Liston Tribute Page: http://www.myspace.com/melbaliston
Melba Liston: Bones of An Arranger (NPR Music):
Melba Liston: A Sensitive and Daring Arranger:
Melba Liston and Her 'Bones (All About Jazz):
Melba Liston at All About Jazz:
Melba Liston at Hard Bop Homepage:
Melba Liston at Fuller Up:
Melba Liston Collection - Columbia College Chicago:
Melba Liston at Women in Jazz:
Melba Liston with Randy Weston:
Melba Liston at National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters:
Melba Liston at Jazz Institute of Chicago:
Melba Liston's Slide to Success: