The First Woman Trombonist in Big Bands | Melba Liston, 1926-1999

Melba Liston in the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band, 1948

Melba Doretta Liston (1926 –1999) was an American jazz trombonist, arranger, and
composer. She was the first woman trombonist to play in big bands during the 1940s and
1960s, but as her career progressed she became better known as an arranger particularly
 in partnership with pianist Randy Weston.

Born in Kansas City in 1926, Liston chose to play trombone at the age of 7 as part of her 
school’s music program. A year later, Liston was talented enough to play trombone at her 
local radio station. At the age of ten, she moved to Los Angeles, California. She was
classmates with Dexter Gordon, and friends with Eric Dolphy.
She started playing with the up-and-coming major names of the bebop 
scene in the 1940s.

Melba Liston, Start Swingin, 1945

 Her most notable recording as a soloist was with Dexter Gordon in 1947. 
Liston worked with Count Basie (1948-1949), Dizzy Gillespie's big band (1949-1950)

Melba Liston with an old school friend, tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, recording for the
Dial sessions : "Mischievous Lady", composed by Dexter and dedicated to Melba, and
"Lullaby In Rhythm" written by Benny Goodman.

Melba Liston, Charles Fox (piano), Chuck Thompson (drums),
Ross Russell (founder of Dial Records) and Dexter Gordon
Hollywood, June 5, 1947 / Photo by Ray Whitten 

Dexter Gordon Quintet - Mischievous Lady /  Dexter Gordon Quintet - Lullaby In Rhythm

"Mischievous Lady": Melba Liston and Dexter Gordon during the Dial Records recording session on June 5th 1947 / Photo by Ray Whitten ^

Matthew Gee, Trummy Young, Henry Coker, Benny Powell, Al Gray, and Leonard Feather,
with Melba Liston
Walter Page, Charlie Persip, Buck Clayton, Melba Liston, and an unidentified musician performing
 on stage. Photo Courtesy: The Buck Clayton Collection

When Liston went on tour with Billie Holiday she was so discouraged by the abuse from 
her male peers and audience members that she quit playing for a period of time. 
She returned to music in the mid ‘50s and recorded her only solo album, 

Melba Listen and her Trombones - Pow, 1958

Melba Liston and Quincy Jones, 1960

Quincy Jones band - My Reverie (Switzerland, 1960)

“Do you know, in Bessie Smith’s time and all that, you don’t hear too much about men. 
They were piano players. But on stage, it was about the black woman. But now, to get 
an instrument? No, sir, a woman couldn’t bring an instrument in no house, especially 
with a husband that was a musician. And not today either... But if it wasn’t for the 
woman there wouldn’t be no culture at-all. There were women – why it was plant 
the garden, work the fields, raise the children and pacify the men. All the men did 
was do their labor and take their straps, and then the woman had to take care of him 
as well as take care of all the other business. She still had to keep his ego up. And 
we still have to do it, just like back in slavery times.”

Melba Liston 
(Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazz Women)

Pianist Mary Lou Williams with arranger- trombonist Melba Liston during a recording 
session for Roulette Records


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