By Nicole Williams Sitaraman – Melba Liston was a trombone player who was nothing less than a force of nature. In addition to being sought after for her second-to-none slide playing, she became widely revered for her jazz arrangements and compositions. She is, without question, one of the unsung heroes of the jazz genre.
She was born in Kansas City, MO on January 13, 1926. When she was seven years old, Melba selected the trombone as her instrument of choice as part of her elementary school’s new music program. She later reflected that as a little girl, she chose the trombone because she thought it was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. As a youngster learning to play the slide, she quickly learned how difficult playing the trombone was but she stuck with it. Only a year later, she was good enough to play a solo on a local radio station.
She later reflected that as a little girl, she chose the trombone because she thought it was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.
In 1937, her family moved to Los Angeles and Melba’s mother matched her with a music teacher named Alma Hightower. Melba studied with Hightower for a few years but by the time Melba reached the age of sixteen, she decided to become a professional musician and joined the musicians union. She became a member of the band of the Los Angeles Lincoln Theater.
During her period with the Lincoln Theater band, she interfaced with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm and also began composing and arranging for other acts performing at Lincoln Theater. This spirit of musical entrepreneurship and creativity would carry Melba throughout her illustrious career as a trombone player, composer and arranger (roles rarely given or attributed to women in jazz during this era).
After her stint at the Lincoln Theater, she joined a band newly-formed by trumpeter Gerald Wilson and also recorded with Dexter Gordon. Melba stayed with Wilson’s band through 1948 when the band broke up. She then joined Dizzy Gillespie’s big band which, at the time, included musicians such as John Coltrane and John Lewis. Melba enjoyed working in this exciting band full of talented artists but Gillespie disbanded the group only a year later. She (and her former bandleader Gerald Wilson) then joined a band backing Billie Holiday on tour. The experience of touring throughout the south with Holiday’s band, coping with the strains of limited income and even more limited audiences, was strenuous, disheartening and exhausting for Melba.
In later years, Melba spoke candidly about the extreme difficulties of being a female jazz musician during this era. More than being shunned or overlooked, she, and likely many other women musicians trying to make their way, were abused. However, despite consistent abuse by male musicians, Melba found strength and motivation in her music.
[continue reading full article via The Girls In The Band, a site and documentary film by Judy Chaikin dedicated to telling the untold stories of female jazz and big band instrumentalists from the late ‘30s to the present, exposing the sexism, racism, and struggles they endured along the way.]