Melba Liston didn’t call me often during the years we were hanging out in the mid 1990s, so I was surprised to hear her voice on the phone. “You gotta come over,” she said. “There’s this woman here and she knows more about my career than I do.”
A trombonist and arranger of the highest order, Liston cut a singular figure across the latter half of the 20th century as the only female horn player to tour and record with jazz stars and leading jazz orchestras, including bands led by Gerald Wilson, Dizzy Gillespie, and Quincy Jones. Though she’d suffered a stroke in 1985 that sidelined her trombone work, Liston was in the midst of a brilliant run arranging and orchestrating albums for pianist/composer Randy Weston when I started visiting her regularly for a series of interviews about her life.
Arriving at the home she shared with her three aunts in Los Angeles’s well-kempt West Adams neighborhood I made my way to her ground-floor studio at the back of the house, where Liston introduced me to Berkeley librarian and trombonist Pat Mullan, who’d already spent a couple of hours peppering her with questions about various recording sessions and projects to which she’d contributed. Mullan’s love of Liston and her music has found a particularly potent outlet recently in Melba’s Kitchen, the 14-piece all-women band that she co-leads with Oakland saxophonist Nzingah Smith. The group, which features an impressive array of East Bay players, performs Friday, Jan. 13, at Freight & Salvage on what would have been Liston’s 97th birthday. Liston died in 1999.
An inveterate musical organizer who played a crucial role in keeping the East Bay’s Junius Courtney Big Band swinging for years after the death of the orchestra’s namesake leader, Mullan has long championed the music of underappreciated Black women, especially Liston. Though named an NEA Jazz Master in 1987 and featured in Katheryn Russell-Brown’s lovely but varnished children’s book Little Melba and Her Big Trombone, Liston can be hard to pin down as an artist. It’s partly because she didn’t take many solos on the numerous albums she played on and only made one record under her own name (1958’s Melba Liston and Her ‘Bones). And Liston didn’t start leading her own bands until the women’s movement opened up opportunities in the late 1970s.
Her legacy is most visible via her five-decade creative sojourn with Randy Weston, who found abiding inspiration in forging and revealing connections between jazz and the music of North and West Africa. Liston and Weston built one of jazz’s definitive composer/arranger partnerships, but she thrived on her own, too. What makes her legacy diffuse is that arranging is an alchemical trade that goes largely unnoticed by most listeners and Liston’s work sometimes appeared under the name of those who hired her.
“Melba’s tunes weren’t always published in her name,” said Nzingah Smith, music director for Melba’s Kitchen. “It’s like Billy Strayhorn with Duke Ellington, not everything she wrote has her name on it. She didn’t get credit.”
As antidote to enforced anonymity, Melba’s Kitchen showcases the breadth and depth of her work, a project amplified at the Freight by the presence of pianist Dee Spencer, who directed San Francisco State’s jazz program for many years and was a founding member of the Melba Liston Research Collective.
“Dee is very formidable,” Mullan said on a recent three-way phone conversation with Smith. “She’s been a big help to the band since we started. She’ll join us on several pieces, including ‘You Don’t Say’ from Melba’s album. And I’m hoping she’ll pull out some material from Melba’s Smile Orange film score. When she moved to Jamaica in the mid-‘70s and started the music program at the University of the West Indies she got really involved with writing scores for a couple of films, including a blaxploitation film of Jamaicans versus tourists. Dee transcribed the film score and it’s got a lot of lush and beautiful stuff.”
The Melba’s Kitchen book also includes ‘Blues Melba,’ the opening track from Melba Liston and Her ‘Bones, “though our version has lyrics that come from Jon Hendricks that we’ve changed up a little bit,” Mullan said. “We’ll have the dance floor open and we’ll be digging a little deeper into the blues from our own perspective. We’re doing an arrangement of ‘Annie’s Dance,’ that piece she wrote for Dizzy’s big band based on ‘Peer Gynt.’”
Liston had already established herself as an elite player and arranger with Los Angeles-based bandleader and composer Gerald Wilson and retreated from the music scene for the stability of an office job with the LA school board when Gillespie summoned her to New York to write for his new orchestra in 1956. She didn’t receive a warm welcome from the men in the band, and recalled some of the players asking Gillespie, “Who’s this bitch?” Rather than responding he just told Liston to pass out her ‘Annie’s Dance’ arrangement. He counted it off and within half a dozen bars the band sounded like a train wreck. “Now who’s the bitch?” Gillespie cracked.
“They didn’t say anything about me after that,” she told me.
The band eventually recorded the piece, which can be heard on Birks Works: The Verve Big Band Sessions. Since few of Liston’s tunes have been published the Melba’s Kitchen crew has had to devise their own musical recipes, either transcribing recordings or tracking down original charts, which are often dog-eared and hard to decipher. One piece they’ve located is a condensed medley Liston wrote for Mary Lou Williams when the legendary pianist/composer launched the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival in 1964. “It’s a little outline, a cue sheet that Melba wrote as a walk on piece for Mary Lou,” Mullan explained. “It’s less than two minutes and includes ‘Morning Glory’ and ‘Roll ‘Em.’”
As conspicuously successful arrangers and masterly instrumentalists at a time when jazz bandstands were often worse than unwelcoming for women, Liston and Williams were close confederates, a connection that’s at the heart of Melba’s Kitchen. Mullan founded the band’s first incarnation, Mary Lou’s Apartment, with Oakland multi-instrumentalist Mwamba Blakwomyn (on bass) in 2017. Named after Williams’ famous Sugar Hill digs in Harlem, which served as an all-hours salon for pioneering modernists such as Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Tadd Dameron, and Charlie Parker, the ensemble alternated between Williams and Liston tunes (with several pieces by other composers to provide more perspective on the women’s work).
Sidelined by the pandemic, the band underwent major personnel changes, and in returning to action “we had the chance to change the compass,” Mullan said. “We’ve been very dedicated to Mary Lou Williams and Melba, but going into Yoshi’s last June for our first show we put that spotlight on Melba a little brighter, while keeping the connection with Williams.”
The group features some well-traveled players. Bassist Susanne DiVincenzo was a founding member of the great all-women quintet Alive! (and plays bass and cello in a variety of symphony orchestras around the region. Drawing from Berkeley’s deep pool of talent, the group also features percussionist Renaye Brown, trombonist Jessica Hom, and trumpeter Candace Sanderson, who’s better known as assistant concertmaster and violinist for the Berkeley Symphony and a member of the Oakland Symphony since 1981.