Coming of age in Los Angeles, Melba Liston, the noted jazz trombonist and composer, attended high school with the famed saxophonist Dexter Gordon. She spent many hours in the company of the great multireedist Eric Dolphy. The esteemed pianist and bandleader Randy Weston wrote a song in tribute to her musical genius.
Quite apart from the significant others cited here, the operative word is “genius,” and she was still a child when evidence of it began to flower. Born Jan. 13, 1926, in Kansas City, Mo., Melba Doretta Liston was 7 years old when her parents bought her a trombone. She had seen the instrument when a traveling music store came to her elementary school. “When I saw the trombone,” she said, “I thought how beautiful it looked, and I knew I just had to have one. No one told me that it was difficult to master.”
Despite the challenge of learning the slide and having to turn her head sideways to reach certain notes in the slide positions, in the matter of a year Liston was proficient enough on the horn to begin performing on a local radio show. After a disappointing experience with a teacher, she began teaching herself to play by ear. The family relocated to Los Angeles in 1937, and almost immediately she was promoted to high school, although she had only been in the sixth grade in Kansas City.
Liston had better success with another teacher, Alma Hightower, but by the time she was 16 she was a member of the musicians’ union and ready to embark on a professional career. One of her first gigs was with the band of the Lincoln Theater in Los Angeles. Working there provided her an opportunity to engage members of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, occasionally writing arrangements for them and other groups at the theater.
When trumpeter Gerald Wilson formed his new band, Liston joined and she remained there until 1948. Her next stop was with Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, and that put her in close proximity on the bandstand with such luminaries as John Coltrane and John Lewis. But the stint here, although instructive, lasted only a year. she was soon back with Wilson in a band that traveled with Billie Holiday. Their tour dates in the South, as it was for many African-American musicians then, was stress-filled, mainly because of the inconvenience of racism and segregation.
According to Weston, “On one occasion, she was stranded with Billie Holiday, both of them broke, in a hostile South Carolina, and on another, she walked about playing a harp in the film ‘The Ten Commandments.’”
Liston offers a different version of this experience. “I had a long thing with Lana Turner and walked around behind her playing a harp in ‘The Prodigal’  and was a member of the palace orchestra in ‘The Ten Commandments,’” she recalled. “I was tall and skinny then, and they said that had they known about me sooner, they could have used me in several of those Egyptian movies. I never really took acting seriously. It was nice doing those movies, but they’re all crazy out there in Hollywood.”
The tour with Holiday had a devastating effect on Liston, to say nothing of the abuse and harassment she had endured as a female instrumentalist. After the tour, she stopped performing, moved back to Los Angeles where she worked as a clerk for the city’s Board of Education. Although her performances were curtailed, that did not interfere with her composing and arranging.
By the mid-’50s, after a brief flirtation in the film industry, she was with Gillespie’s band, where she wrote a number of treasured arrangements, including “Stella By Starlight” and “The Gypsy.” She provided the same valuable services to Quincy Jones and his orchestra. In 1958, she recorded her first and only album, “Melba Liston and Her Bones.”
In the ’60s, Melba spent most of her time in New York City, where the studio sessions and arranging opportunities were lucrative. Among the records she scored were dates with Milt Jackson, Gloria Lynne and even with Motown stars such as Marvin Gaye and The Supremes. For a short spell, she fronted a band with trumpeter Clark Terry and appeared once again onstage performing with Charlie Mingus at Town Hall in 1962.
But one of the byproducts of working as an arranger with the Riverside label was her relationship with Randy Weston. He hired her to embellish his compositions, which, according to him, she made sound like he had created them. “She’s just a great, great arranger,” he noted in his autobiography “African Rhythms.”
Weston, added, “She had this big, gorgeous sound on the trombone and coupled with the incredible arrangements. … I was hooked.”
Curiously, it was not until 2001 that he recorded “Sketch of Melba,” which had been so wonderfully rendered on flute by Eric Dolphy. The Weston/Liston collaboration created 10 albums and a lifelong friendship.
Liston was back in Los Angeles by the late ’60s, where she worked with youth orchestras. In 1973, she migrated to Jamaica and stayed there until 1999. She was deeply involved in the countries culture and music, and she taught at University of the West Indies and was director of music studies at the Jamaica Institute of Music in Kingston.
Beginning in 1985, Liston suffered a number of debilitating strokes that limited her playing and confined her to a wheelchair, although she continued to produce those glorious arrangements. In 1987, she was awarded the Jazz Masters Fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts. It was right after she received a tribute, along with Weston, at Harvard University that she died April 23, 1999. She was 73.