Melba Liston is one of those gems of Black history that doesn’t get to shine.
Frank Morrison’s illustration of a little brown girl blowing a trombone longer than her body will catch your eye. Inside is where you will meet Ms. Liston with the words of Kathryn Russell-Brown in Little Melba and Her Big Trombone.
So, who is Melba Liston?
Melba Liston was a jazz trombonist, composer, arranger and educator who has worked with jazz and pop artists for over 50 years. She has worked with and for musical greats like Quincy Jones, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Bassie, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and the Supremes.
Liston was a prodigy. She was born in 1926 in Kansas City, Missouri. She taught herself how to play the trombone at age seven. The following year she played at the local radio station in her hometown. Academically, she excelled and skipped the 7th grade. At 16, she joined a musician’s union. She played alongside many prominent acts, including the all-female group named the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. The camaraderie between Liston and the Sweethearts end up being a buffer for the negativity she faced.
Liston was a rarity—female instrumentalists were not common back then, neither were the solos she performed while working with Dexter Gordon in the 1940s. Since she was a woman, she faced sexism from male horn players and racism while touring in the south. It began to take a toll on her so relied on her arranging skills to progress. She released her first album Melba Liston and Her ‘Bones in 1968.
Her debut album impressed a young bandleader named Quincy Jones, they would work together for a few years. She also collaborated with American jazz pianist Randy Weston and released Uhuru Afrika in 1960. Later, Liston worked as an in-house arranger at Motown Records.
Her legacy does not end at Motown—but you have to read the book, especially with a little person who has big dreams.