The Unsung Hero: Melba Liston & Her Trombone

Written by: Mauranne Vernier


Melba Liston is a name in Jazz that isn’t usually brought up. She was the first Black Women trombonist to play in big bands during the 1940s. She faced many obstacles while traveling to her path of success. However, she overcame them and became a true jazz hero!

Early Beginnings

Melba Liston was born on January 13th, 1926 in Kansas City, MO. When she was seven her mother brought her a trombone. Melba was apart of a music-loving family and they pushed her to pursue music while she was a child. Her grandfather helped her and taught her how to play many spiritual and folk songs. When she was 10 she and her family moved to Los Angelos, CA.

In Los Angelos, she was classmates with Dexter Gordon and Eric Dolphy. In high school, she played in youth bands, and afterward, in 1944 she joined Gerald Wilson’s big band. In  1947, she was the dedicatee of Dexter Gordon’s tune “Mischievous Lady”, and joined Dizzy Gillespie’s big band in New York for a time period. She also toured with Billie Holiday in 1949 but didn’t enjoy the rigors of the road.


She gave up music for a time and in her free time took a clerical job and even appeared as an extra in Hollywood appearing 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. Additionally, Liston made Melba and Her Bones, the only album she recorded as a leader. 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.

Fruitful Life

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. After suffering repeated strokes, she died in Los Angeles, California in 1999.

Musical Style

Liston’s musical style displays bebop that she learned from Dexter Gordon and Dizzy Gillespie. Her musical skills stand out. Bebop jazz is a style of jazz that developed in the mid-1940s. It has a fast tempo, rapid chord changes, and numerous changes of key. Lipton used these techniques in her music and composed soulful tunes that have lasted for generations.


Liston was a trailblazer for women in jazz. However, she had to continually prove her credentials in order to gain proper work as a musician, composer, and arranger. She was not paid equal measure and was frequently rejected access to the larger openings as a composer and arranger.


The things that Melba Liston had to go through to make her mark in the jazz world were a lot but she conquered it. She was able to compose and record beautiful music that has lasted for generations. Her hard work wasn’t for nothing. She opened the doors for other Black women like Esperanza Spalding and Kandace Springs. Which makes her a true Jazz hero.


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