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Melba Liston lectures at the University of Connecticut

 Digital Record


  • 1973 - 1982


Composer and jazz trombonist Melba Liston delivered 2 lectures. Liston spoke 1st on 9/25/1973 (2015-0002/RR218) and again on 11/9/1982 2015-0002/RR219). Liston is often credited with being the 1st woman trombonist to play in big bands during the 1940s and 1960s.

Liston, although now known for her arrangements, began as a trombone player in the 1940s and early 1950s. After relocating to Los Angeles from her native Kansas City, Missouri, Liston began performing professionally in Gerald Wilson’s big band from 1943-1948. After performing with Wilson, she often played in small ensembles with Dexter Gordon. Following a tour of the South with Billie Holiday during the early 1950s, Liston became disillusioned with touring and focused on arranging for a number of years.

In 1957, Liston was hired by Dizzy Gillespie for State Department tours to the Middle East, Asia, and South America. During these tours, Liston’s arrangements of “Stella by Starlight,” “My Reverie,” and “Annie’s Dance” were featured. The year following she recorded her first album as a band leader, in 1959 she toured Europe with Quincy Jones, and then became an in-house arranger for the label Riverside. During this time she met Randy Weston, with whom she would collaborate on ten album with.

In the subsequent years of her career, Liston scored arrangements for Tony Bennett, Art Blakely, Duke Ellington, Billy Eckstine, Marvin Gaye, Johnny Griffin, Milt Jackson, Gloria Lynne, Abbey Lincoln, Diana Ross, the Supremes, and Clark Terry. Liston also taught at the University of the West Indies and the Jamaica Institute of Music from 1973-1979.

Biographical / Historical

Liston was born in Kansas City, Missouri. At the age of seven, Melba's mother purchased her a trombone. Her family encouraged her musical pursuits, as they were all music lovers. Liston was primarily self-taught, but she was "encouraged by her guitar-playing grandfather", with whom she spent significant time learning to play spirituals and folk songs. At the age of eight, she was good enough to be a solo act on a local radio station. At the age of 10, she moved to Los Angeles, California. She was classmates with Dexter Gordon, and friends with Eric Dolphy. After playing in youth bands and studying with Alma Hightower, she joined the big band led by Gerald Wilson in 1944.

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. Liston performed in a supporting role and was nervous when asked to take solos, but with encouragement she became more comfortable as a featured voice in bands. She toured with Count Basie, 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 and turned to education. Liston taught for about three years.

She took a clerical job for some years and supplemented her income by taking work as an extra in Hollywood, appearing with Lana Turner in The Prodigal (1955) and in The Ten Commandments (1956). Liston returned to Gillespie for tours sponsored by the U.S. State Department in 1956 and 1957, recorded with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers (1957), and formed an 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, released on October 1, 1961, by Verve.

In the late 1950s 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 with Milt Jackson, Clark Terry, and Johnny Griffin, as well as working as an arranger for Motown, appearing on albums by Ray Charles. In 1964, she helped establish the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra. In 1971 she was chosen as musical arranger for Stax recording artist Calvin Scott, whose album was being produced by Stevie Wonder's first producer, Clarence Paul. On this album she worked with Joe Sample and Wilton Felder of the Jazz Crusaders, blues guitarist Arthur Adams, and jazz drummer Paul Humphrey. In 1973, she moved to Jamaica to teach at the Jamaica School of Music for six years, before returning to the U.S. to lead her own bands.

During her time in Jamaica, she composed and arranged music for the 1975 comedy film Smile Orange, starring Carl Bradshaw, who three years earlier starred in the first Jamaican film, The Harder They Come (1972).

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 repeated strokes, she died in Los Angeles, California, in 1999 a few days after a tribute to her and Randy Weston's music at Harvard University. Her funeral at St. Peter's in Manhattan featured performances by Weston with Jann Parker, as well as by Chico O'Farrill's Afro-Cuban ensemble and by Lorenzo Shihab (vocals).


Existence and Location of Originals

Original audio recordings reside in the University of Connecticut, Black Experience in the Arts Collection, Archives & Special Collections, UConn Library.

Repository Details

Part of the Archives and Special Collections, University of Connecticut Library Repository

University of Connecticut Library
405 Babbidge Road Unit 1205
Storrs Connecticut 06269-1205 USA US