Females in Jazz: Melba Liston

Melba Liston (1926-1999)

How much do you acknowledge females when thinking about the history of jazz? Or if someone asked you to name five jazz musicians, would any of them be a woman?

These kinds of questions do not come up a lot when discussing jazz within close knit musical circles,(unless you happen to be in a gender studies class) but they are questions that should be taken into consideration more often.

I have given a lot more thought to those inquiries within the last years as I have begun to write about female jazz instrumentalists and have continued researching more about jazz history. I recently learned about female jazz trombonist Melba Liston when I was writing an article about Chicago saxophonist Geof Bradfield, who composed a jazz suite in tribute to Liston.

Liston was a very skilled musician and arranger who composed material for many artists including Dizzy Gillespie, Marvin Gaye, Billie Holiday, and Gerald Wilson. Her work with pianist  Randy Weston earned her much praise and they collaborated on some of his most popular works such as Urugu Afrika, and High Life.  But, in spite of all the accolades she recieved, her name was never as prominent as other male jazz musicians, and we all know why. Being a woman in any profession, especially that of jazz, is a challenging task. At one point in Liston’s life, she even stepped away from jazz because of the ill treatment she received from male band mates and their refusal to accept her as an accomplished music performer. Her role as an arranger may have also hindered her mainstream success within jazz, but society made it very clear back in her day that women were more suited in front of the stage as a singer as opposed to being an instrumental band mate.

Howeverit’s because of female musicians such as Liston, Mary Lou Williams, Alma Smith, and Fostina Dixon-Kilgoe who paved the way that we now have a more diverse group of female instrumentalists in the mainstream.

As you can tell from the page on my blog “Ladies First,”  I am a strong advocate for women in jazz. They have made many important contributions to this genre and deserve to be  recognized on the same level as male musicians. Every chance I get, I always try to acknowledge their contributions to this genre.

As part of that acknowledgement, here are a few female jazz trombonists who are continuing the work of Liston:

 Sarah Morrow

Audrey Morrison

Monique Buzzarte

Abbie Conant

Melba Liston’s thoughts on the role women have played in jazz history

“Do you know, in Bessie Smith’s time and all that, you don’t hear too much about men. they were piano players. But onstage, it was about the black woman. But now, to get an instrument? No sir, a woman couldn’t bring an instrument in no house, especially with a husband that was a musician. And not today either. But if it wasn’t for the woman there wouldn’t be no culture at-all. There were women – why it was plant the garden, work the fields, raise the children and pacify the men. All the men did was do their labor and take their straps, and then the woman had to take care of him as well as take care of all the other business. She still had to keep his ego up. And we still have to do it, just like back in slavery times.”  —- Melba Liston from Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazz Women

Check out my latest piece about Geof Bradfield’s tribute piece to Melba Liston.


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