One of the highlights of my trip to New York City last week to attend the CAA2013 conference was a visit to the Whitney Museum to see a show called Blues for Smoke. I was with art historian friends Krista Thompson and Amy Mooney. Amy asked if i had heard of Melba Liston. No, who was she i asked. A trombonist, music composer and arranger who had performed or written music for all the now legendary figures of American jazz as it turns out.
Here’s what one biographer had to say about her:
Melba Liston certainly saw every side of show business. 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” (1956).
It was her talents as a composer and arranger that distinguished her, rather than her work as an instrumentalist. She wrote scores for innumerable big bands including those of Quincy Jones, Count Basic, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie. Her long association with her mentor the pianist and composer Randy Weston took her to the forefronts of modern jazz and Tony Bennett, Billie Holiday, Abbey Lincoln and Diana Ross were amongst the vocalists that commissioned work from her.
In the late 60s Melba seemed to fade away, hardly making an appearance on stage or behind it anymore. What is less known about Melba Liston is that in 1973, invited by the Government of Jamaica (“which was anxious to provide facilities where young Jamaican musicians could learn about a wide range of modern music forms”), she took up a 6-year contract at the Jamaica School of Music where she headed the Department of Afro-American Pop and Jazz.
According to an article in Ebony:
In recent years an increasing number of seasoned professional Jamaican musicians have enrolled in the department’s advanced courses in theory, harmony, improvisation, jazz choir and jazz history. The students have also benefited from private seminars with artists such as saxophonist Frank Foster, drummer Elvin Jones and trumpeter Lester Bowie.
Who were all these professionals i wonder, and how come we hear so little about pioneering figures like Liston, especially when they play pivotal roles in our cultural development?
Wikipedia provides more information about Liston’s work in Jamaica:
During her time in Jamaica, she composed and arranged the music for the classic 1975 comedy film Smile Orange (starring Carl Bradshaw, who three years earlier starred in the very first Jamaican film, The Harder They Come). The Smile Orange experience was probably her only known venture into composing reggae music (on which, in this case, she collaborated with playwright Trevor Rhone for the lyrics). Sadly, a soundtrack album for Smile Orange was never released or made available.
Here’s an excellent NPR documentary on Liston full of the most entrancing samples of her music. The set called Melba! was produced by Chicago musician Geof Bradfield, who incidentally is married to Amy Mooney (go back to top), which is how i came by her story.