Melba Doretta Liston (January 13, 1926 – April 23, 1999) was an American jazz trombonist, arranger, and composer. Other than those playing in all-female bands she was the first woman trombonist to play in big bands during the 1940s and 1960s, but as her career progressed she became better known as an arranger, particularly in partnership with pianist Randy Weston. Other major artists with whom she worked include Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane and Count Basie.
Liston was born in Kansas City, Missouri. At the age of seven, Melba’s mother purchased her a trombone. Her family encouraged her musical pursuits, as they were all music lovers. Liston was primarily self-taught, but she was “encouraged by her guitar-playing grandfather”, with whom she spent significant time learning to play spirituals and folk songs. At the age of eight, she was good enough to be a solo act on a local radio station. At the age of 10, she moved to Los Angeles, California. She was classmates with Dexter Gordon, and friends with Eric Dolphy. After playing in youth bands and studying with Alma Hightower, she joined the big band led by Gerald Wilson in 1944.
She recorded with saxophonist Dexter Gordon in 1947 and joined Dizzy Gillespie‘s big band, which included saxophonists John Coltrane, Paul Gonsalves, and pianist John Lewis) in New York for a time when Wilson disbanded his orchestra in 1948. Liston performed in a supporting role and was nervous when asked to take solos, but with encouragement she became more comfortable as a featured voice in bands. She toured with Count Basie, then with Billie Holiday (1949) but was so profoundly affected by the indifference of the audiences and the rigors of the road that she gave up playing and turned to education. Liston taught for about three years.