March 9 - Today's post contributed by Katheryn Russell-Brown
It was a Friday, late in the day, and I was at work. I was casually listening to the radio as I straightened up my office and prepared to leave. The radio station featured a broadcast of “Melba Liston: The Bones of An Arranger.” Initially what captured my attention was the narrator’s voice. It was jazz singer Nancy Wilson. I thought to myself, I don’t know who Melba Liston is but if the divine Ms. Wilson is moderating, she must be someone with noteworthy talents. As the show continued, I was taken with Melba’s life story, told through her music, her collaborators, and with snippets of her own voice.
Melba was born in 1926, a time of great social change and unrest. A new civil rights era was burgeoning, along with establishment of the nation’s first civil rights organization, the N.A.A.C.P. It was also an era of lynch mobs, the recent passage of women’s suffrage, and the Great Depression was on the horizon.
I was intrigued by Melba’s story of joy, grit, determination, and pain. Melba was born into a family of musicians and music lovers. She enjoyed listening to songs on the radio. In fact, at five-years old, she devised a written music code so she could remember the songs she heard. At seven years old, it was love at first sight when she saw a trombone at the traveling music store. She did not know anything about the awkward, large instrument but resolved to master it. Melba was not deterred by the fact that the trombone was “not for girls.” She knew she wanted to play it and play she did!
With the support of her family, Melba kept pushing forward with her trombone, even when it was hard, uncomfortable, and lonely. Even as a child, she was directing her musical future. After Melba got her trombone, her mother arranged for her to have music lessons. Melba met with the teacher but concluded that, “He wasn’t right. I don't know how, but I knew. So I said ‘no,’ cancelled, and went on my own. I was always good in my ears, so I could play by ear.” 1 I love that Melba trusted her instincts—and at such a young age.
Melba’s well-honed talents and singular skills put her in high demand. Her musical collaborations were legendary. She shared the bandstand with Dexter Gordon, Gerald Wilson, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, and Quincy Jones. She composed and arranged for Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Tony Bennett, Eddie Fisher, Billy Eckstine, the Supremes, Dinah Washington, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Bob Marley, and Marvin Gaye. Melba did arrangements on ten albums with jazz pianist Randy Weston.
I was only able to scratch the surface of Melba Liston’s life in Little Melba and Her Big Trombone. Many of Melba’s life lessons are ones that we can all learn from. Here are a few:
• Stay the course, though sometimes you may need to step off the road for a bit. Melba loved music but sometimes the music world did not love her back. Her extraordinary talents came with a high price. She faced harsh treatment by some male musicians who viewed her as a threat. At times she encountered blatant disrespect. At other times, she was simply ignored. When traveling on the road, she was usually the only woman in the band. She was expected to do women’s work, such as sewing buttons and cleaning up behind the men. Even more troubling, she was assaulted by some of the men.
Melba had a particularly difficult time when she went on a Southern tour with Billie Holiday’s band in the 1949. Southern racism was rife and the crowds were sparse. After the band ran out of money and disbanded, Melba put her trombone down. She took a desk job at the Los Angeles School Board and won some small movie roles. Melba played the harp in “The Prodigal” (1955) and was a member of the palace orchestra in “The Ten Commandments” (1956).
• Don’t accept other people’s limits on your talents. From an early age, Melba knew she had a rare gift. On a side note, one of Melba’s grade school teachers asked her mother for permission to adopt Melba so he could send her away to work with renowned music teachers. Her mother said no.
Melba was a perfectionist at all levels, beginning with writing and arranging music. She was known to have exceptionally detailed, color-coded scores. She outlined some material with red and blue pencils for emphasis. She was very meticulous.
• Do something that brings you joy. When Melba was perched on the bandstand, you could hear and feel her love for the trombone. She wrote many songs. One of her favorites was “Len Sirrah.” Here’s a snippet (performed by Blue Mitchell): http://www.allmusic.com/album/the-complete-blue-note-blue-mitchell-sessions-1963-67-mw0000919651
Melba Liston was a captivating trombone player. To close, here she is performing with the Quincy Jones Band in 1960 in Switzerland: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ojwANp_D_fE
I begin and end Little Melba and Her Big Trombone with, “Spread the Word! Melba Doretta Liston was something special.” Indeed she was.
Katheryn Russell-Brown is a Professor of Law and the Director of the Center for Race and Race Relations at the University of Florida. She grew up in a family of music lovers, where jazz was an integral part of the sounds of daily life. A radio broadcast in 2008 about Liston inspired Russell-Brown to research the musician and eventually to write Little Melba and Her Big Trombone, her first picture book. Russell-Brown lives in Gainesville, Florida, with her husband and their two children. She is from Oakland, California, by way of New York City. Visit her online at krbrown.net .