Written by Becca Pulliam from National Public Radio
Not long ago, when musicians needed good charts, they called Melba Liston. She wrote for Dizzy Gillespie, Randy Weston, Elvin Jones, Clark Terry and many more. After suffering a stroke in the mid-1980s, she adapted to composing on a computer. In 1991, a Jazz at Lincoln Center concert included her work. The National Endowment for the Arts named her a Jazz Master.
Now, saxophonist Geof Bradfield and his Chicago ensemble offer the premiere of a suite — Melba! — commissioned by Chamber Music America. It traces her life story through Kansas City and Los Angeles, her work with Gillespie and Weston, and her assignments in Detroit and Kingston.
Liston was born in 1926 with music in her soul. As a child, she taught herself to play the trombone. She was a reluctant soloist, but she grew into a stunning, sought-after composer and arranger. Bradfield knows, because he studied 45 boxes of her scores in the archive at the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College in Chicago. In an interview with JazzSet, he described his mindset after his research, as he began to create Melba!
“I thought about the struggle that she went through as a woman in the jazz world,” Bradfield says, “as somebody largely self-taught in this very complex music, and how she always talked about — because she had taught herself — she always had to reach down deep. It was always hard for her to write. That idea of struggle, I think, is there in her music.”
“Let me not lose my dream,” a line by the Harlem Renaissance poet Georgia Douglas Johnson, inspires the opening movement, “Kansas City Child.” Next comes an almost-blues named “Central Avenue” for the street where swing met bebop in Los Angeles in the 1940s. Melba Liston was there. Her middle-school classmate was Dexter Gordon, the future saxophone idol. Liston also worked for the up-and-coming bandleader Gerald Wilson at the Lincoln Theater, a.k.a. the Apollo of the West Coast.
The next two movements are “Dizzy Gillespie” and “Randy Weston.” It is Gillespie who hired Liston as one of the first woman horn players — if not the first — in a major big band. As she told it in Gillespie’s autobiography, To Be or Not to Bop, “[Dizzy] heard I was in town. There was one trombone player he wanted to get rid of, so immediately he fired him. And I went by to visit. [Dizzy] says, ‘Where’s ya goddamned horn? Don’t you see this empty chair up there? You’re supposed to be working tonight.'” Melba Liston toured the Mideast and South America with Gillespie’s band, supported by the U.S. State Department.
Her association with pianist Randy Weston was long and fruitful. For four decades, she arranged and conducted on Weston recordings like Uhuru Afrika (1960) and The Spirits of Our Ancestors (1991). According to Weston in NPR’s Jazz Profiles, their collaboration went like this: He would write a theme (often a waltz), play it for her and answer her questions about it. Liston would take the music home. Later, when she came to the studio with the arrangement, Weston says she always surprised him. Even though it wasn’t something he had made, it was exactly what he intended, he told Geof Bradfield in an interview.
In the 1970s, Liston wrote arrangements for the Motown and Stax labels, and taught in a school in Jamaica. The movement “Detroit Kingston” is a conversation between melodic fragments from “What’s Goin’ On” and “No Woman No Cry.”
Then the first Kansas City Women’s Jazz Festival brought Melba Liston home. In his finale, “The Homecoming,” Bradfield brings back melodic motifs from “Kansas City Child.” Committing yourself to your best material is one lesson Bradfield says he learned from studying Melba Liston.
Bradfield participates in the Melba Liston Research Collective, which in 2014 will publish an edition of the Black Music Research Journal about her. To hear Liston’s story in her own and others’ words, with plenty of her music, see NPR’s Jazz Profiles.
- Victor Garcia, trumpet
- Geof Bradfield, soprano and tenor sax
- Joel Adams, trombone
- Jeff Parker, guitar
- Ryan Cohan, piano
- Clark Sommers, bass
- George Fludas, drums
Melba! by Geof Bradfield and the Geof Bradfield Ensemble has been made possible with support from Chamber Music America’s New Jazz Works: Commissioning and Ensemble Development program, funded through the generosity of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. An album from Melba! is coming in 2013. Location recording by Dan Nichols of Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. Geof Bradfield is on the faculty at NIU. Surround Sound mix by Duke Markos.