This biographical article is part of JAZZ.FM91’s supplementary research component to expand on The Journey to Jazz and Human Rights documentary podcast series. Click here to find out more.
Melba Doretta Liston was born on Jan. 13, 1926, in Kansas City, Mo. to a family that was extremely passionate about music. At the young age of seven, Liston’s mother bought her a trombone. She was primarily self-taught, but was often encouraged and mentored by her guitar-playing grandfather, who introduced her to folk songs and spirituals. By the age of eight, Liston was skilled enough at the trombone to have her own radio act, and by the mere age of ten, she relocated to Los Angeles to pursue a career in music. After playing in youth bands and studying with Alma Hightower, she joined the big band led by Gerald Wilson in 1944.
During her time with Wilson’s band, Liston established herself as an incredibly talented arranger and bandleader. After playing and touring with another small group led by Dexter Gordon in 1947, Liston joined Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band in 1950 for a year, and then toured internationally with him in 1956 and 1957.
During the 1960s, Liston played with several groups “but focused most of her energy on writing songs for others, including Tony Bennett, Duke Ellington, Milt Jackson and Diana Ross.” In the 1970s, she turned her attention to teaching jazz at the Jamaica School of Music. By the 1980s, Liston suffered a stoke which slowed her down considerably. However, she is revered as a “trailblazer in jazz during a time when most doors were firmly closed to women.” Along with Mary Lou Williams, Liston was one of the only successful Black female artists to share the stage with men during the 1940s, and during the growth of bebop.