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A Sensitive and Daring ArrangerCopyright © 1999The Scotsman, 1999
Liston, MelbaMelba Liston made a reputation as an important jazz arranger, no small achievement in a field generally dominated by men. Much of her most important work was written for the pianist Randy Weston, with whom she worked for four decades from the early 60s.
Weston valued Liston's contributions to his recordings and concerts immensely, both for what he described as "the beauty, depth and sensitivity of her arrangements" and for her ability "to adapt to any situation, whether it's a chorus, or strings, or horns, or Africa."
She added creative layers of harmonic colour and texture to Weston's memorable themes, a combination which proved highly effective from his great 60s albums like High Life and Uhuru Afrika through to recent recordings like Earth Birth (with Liston's string arrangements) and last year's Khepera.
She was born Melba Doretta Liston in Kansas City, but moved with her family to Los Angeles in 1937, where she played in a youth bands in high school before beginning her professional career working as a trombonist in a pit band in 1942. She began to write arrangements from that time, and joined the big band led by Gerald Wilson the following year.
She began to work with the emerging major names of the bebop scene in mid-decade. She recorded with saxophonist Dexter Gordon in 1947, and was the dedicatee of his tune "Mischievous Lady", and joined Dizzy Gillespie's big band in New York for a time, when Wilson disbanded his orchestra on the east coast after a tour.
She also toured with Billie Holiday in 1949, but decided in the early 50s that the rigours and privations of the touring circuit were not for her. She took a clerical job for some years, and supplemented her income by taking work as an extra in Hollywood, including appearances in The Prodigal and The Ten Commandments.
Gillespie invited her to re-join his big band when the State Department funded tours to Europe, the Middle East and Latin America in 1956 and 1957, and took what is her best known recorded trombone solo on Gillespie's tune "Cool Breeze" on the album Dizzy Gillespie at Newport, recorded at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1957.
She formed her own all-women quintet in 1958. She toured Europe with the theatre production Free and Easy in 1959, then worked for a time in the band led by the show's musical director, Quincy Jones. She worked with a variety of leaders in the 60s, including vibraphonist Milt Jackson and saxophonist Johnny Griffin, and began her long association with Weston. In 1973, she began a six-year teaching appointment at the Jamaica School of Music, and formed her own mixed band, Melba Liston and Company, after her return to the USA in 1979.
She was forced to give up playing in 1985 after a stroke left her partially paralyzed, but she continued to arrange music with Weston, contributing her imaginative, often strikingly dramatic arrangements to a succession of his albums in the 90s. She was afflicted by a further series of strokes in recent years, which eventually proved fatal.