Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Melba Liston - trailblazing musician

Melba Liston grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, during its jazz heyday when band leaders like Count Basie were rising stars on the national music scene. It's not hard to imagine the kind of influence this must have had on her own musical interests as a young child. But, even so, it is still quite remarkable that a seven year old girl would even think about playing a trombone, much less actually set her mind to it. But she did. And by the age of eight, she was playing solos on the local radio programs.



She continued to study and played in several youth bands, and in 1943 she got a big break, when she joined the big band led by Gerald Wilson. This led to more gigs with up-and-coming artists, and she toured and performed with Dexter Gordon (who wrote "Mischievous Lady" in her honor), Dizzy Gillespie (listen for her solo in his version of My Reverie), Count Basie, and even Billie Holiday.

Sadly, she began to suffer from burn-out and decided to take some years off to teach. She also worked as an extra in Hollywood, and shows up in several big budget productions of the 1950s. But music was always there, and the pull to return to performing finally encouraged her to form her own all-women quintet. And in 1959 she traveled with the show Free and Easy, which brought her to the attention of music director Quincy Jones.



But her musical career was not limited to performing. In the 1960s she partnered with pianist Randy Weston, arranging many of his compositions for large ensembles. This partnership lasted on and off for the rest of her life and brought her many accolades. That she was so successful in a field dominated by men is nothing short of a tribute to her musical genius.

Nor was her career limited to jazz. She routinely worked with record producers across many genres, including performing on a Ray Charles album, as well as arranging pieces for pop singers and others. While living in Jamaica in the 1970s, she arranged and produced the soundtrack for Smile Orange, starring Carl Bradshaw, with a distinctly reggae flair.

Tragically, a stoke in 1985 forced her to stop performing altogether. Not content to rest on her laurels, she returned to her partnership with Randy Weston and continued to arrange music. She was awarded the "Jazz Masters Fellowship" of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1978. She died in 1999, at the age of 73.



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