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Obituaries

Melba Liston; Jazz Trombonist, Composer

April 28, 1999|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Melba Liston, a pioneering jazz trombonist, composer and arranger who worked with bands led by Dizzy Gillespie and Quincy Jones and shared a long collaboration with pianist Randy Weston, has died. She was 73.

Liston died Friday in Los Angeles following a series of strokes, jazz record producer Dick Bank said Tuesday. She had been confined to a wheelchair for many years.

Although an initial stroke in 1985 partially paralyzed Liston and ended her trombone playing, she continued to arrange music until the end. In 1993, she shared billing and the cover photo with her old friend Weston on their critically acclaimed album "Volcano Blues."

When Liston played the masculine horn she chose as a fifth-grader, she was stunning.

"Melba Liston is tall, beautiful . . . has a smile radiant enough to light up the first six rows, and plays the trombone like an angel," The Times' late jazz critic Leonard Feather began in his review of her performance at the 1979 Women's Jazz Festival in her native Kansas City, Mo.

Liston was universally known as the first female horn player to make a real impact on jazz and the first to play in major bands. But critics and admirers alike point out that she was not just a great female trombonist. In the words of The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, she was "one of the most accomplished trombonists of her generation."

She was even more highly respected as a composer and arranger, particularly in her work with Weston. Among their albums were "Blues to Africa," "High Life," "Little Niles," "Spirits of Our Ancestors," "Tanja" and "Music of the New African Nations."

Liston moved to Los Angeles from Kansas City with her family when she was 11. In her teens, she began playing in youth bands and then joined Gerald Wilson's band as trombonist and arranger. When that group disbanded in 1948, Liston took a job with Gillespie.

Traveling with big bands as a young black woman had its price. "Rapes and everything. I've been going through that stuff for all my life," she once told an interviewer. " 'Yeah, well, you know, it's a broad and she's by herself.' I'd just go to the doctor and tell him, and that was that. The older I got, the less it happened."

But it was her 1949 tour of the American South with Billie Holliday that disillusioned Liston, turned her briefly against jazz and marked the start of her career ups and downs.

"It was a little ahead for people down there. They weren't ready for Billie Holiday and this bebop band. What they really wanted was dance music," she recalled later. "The farther we got, the smaller the audience became, and by the time we reached South Carolina there was just nobody. We finally made it to Kansas City and then sent for money from Los Angeles. It was two days getting to us. So we had a lot of oatmeal."

Abandoning music, Liston worked for the Los Angeles Board of Education for three years. She also worked as a movie extra, playing the harp in "The Prodigal" and "The Ten Commandments."

But in 1955, Gillespie asked her to join a big band he was organizing to tour the Middle East and Asia for the State Department. She went--and later to South America, too--playing trombone and arranging and recording such standards as "Annie's Dance," "My Reverie," "Stella by Starlight" and "The Gypsy."

One of Gillespie's trumpeters, Quincy Jones, later formed a band to tour Europe with "Free and Easy" and asked Liston to go along as music director, trombonist and composer.

The tours were highlights in her life and career, she told The Times in 1979.

"There were moments, both with Dizzy's big band on those State Department tours and with Quincy's orchestra in Paris in 1960, when we trombonists were so proud of having the best section in the band. Sometimes we'd decide we wanted to alter a phrase here, a little nuance there, and suddenly, as if by telepathy, we'd all make that little change simultaneously.

"That kind of team spirit is something a lot of young musicians don't ever get to feel. I'm sure happy I had those early years."

Liston free-lanced from New York in the 1960s when work was harder for jazz artists to find, arranging for Motown performers Marvin Gaye and The Supremes, arranging for the Buffalo Symphony, scoring albums for Weston. In the 1970s, at Weston's suggestion, she taught in Jamaica at the University of the West Indies and the Jamaica Institute of Music.

In the early 1980s, she returned to the United States and formed her own groups until felled by the stroke.

In 1987, Liston earned a Jazz Masters Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Three years later, the Jazz Heritage Foundation organized a fund-raising tribute to the partially paralyzed Liston at Los Angeles' Proud Bird Ballroom to buy computer equipment that allowed her to continue arranging.

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