Thursday, February 22, 2018

Band Review: Melba Liston

Convergence comes about in odd ways sometimes.

Do you remember the Musical Black Girls post? I had started out wanting to feature Black women in the songs of the day for Black History Month 2015, but I kept finding more musicians. That ended up running through July 23rd with no repeats. Well, Diana Ross and Cissy Houston both came up twice because of solo and group careers, but that was a lot of good music, and I went back and reviewed a lot of them later.

That was the first time I encountered Melba Liston. (It was also the first time I encountered Esperanza Spalding, though not directly.)

Melba Liston was an amazing trombone player, composer, and arranger, but she was also a broke ground by being the first woman trombonist to play in big bands. I found that impressive, but at the time it really only got her one song in the list - "Pop" - and I moved on, except that I remembered that she was there.

This year while looking at children's books, I found one about her, Little Melba and Her Big Trombone, by Katheryn Russell-Brown and illustrated by Frank Morrison.

It reinforced how young she was and how quickly she became great. That is not just for starting to play at all, but also for getting good enough to be sought out by popular musicians.

This was also the year that I got around to reviewing Esperanza Spalding and concluding that I hate jazz, and yet here I was, being drawn once again to someone who played jazz.

I did not hate it.

As far as that goes, I probably don't know enough about the different kinds of jazz, though I'd say there is more swing in Liston's discography.

That almost can't be known, because she played for and with so many people. I focused on her recordings as a band leader, but that was a comparatively small part of what she did.

Also, I have nowhere to refer you from here. Liston died in 1999, without creating a web presence. The music is out there, and I linked to a Youtube list of videos with various recordings, but all I can really say is that she was remarkably good at trombone when it would have been easy not to be.

There were things in her favor too. She came from a musical family in a musical city (Kansas City, Missouri), then got to study with Alma Hightower, who inspired many performers. But still, Melba Liston got really good at playing while still really young, and she learned enough about how music fits together to become really good at arranging and composing. She faced opposition for being a woman and for being Black, and she overcame that opposition.

She is worth remembering.

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