MissArtemiss Muse: Melba Liston

Melba Liston's musical journey begins as a small 7 year-old girl in Kansas City, Missouri in 1933. She spotted a beautiful trombone standing tall in a traveling music store's window. She knew nothing about the mysterious instrument, only that she was destined to play it.

Melba’s mother initially laughed at her young daughter’s fascination with the giant instrument, it was nearly as tall as her big dreaming daughter. Back then trombones were just not meant for girls, but after much pleading her mother bought it and the little lady began to master her new instrument mostly through self-taught lessons.

 
 

Following a year of hard work learning by ear, 8 year-old Melba was finally good enough to play trombone solos for the local radio station. Her musical future was off to a shining start. This trailblazing teenager became the first woman trombonist to work in big bands during the 1940's and 1960's, and she played alongside famous musicians like John Coltrane and John Lewis.

While touring with trumpet player, Gerald Wilson’s band, Melba earned the respect of her male counterparts with her strong solo performances but she still had to endure the challenges of being a woman on the road. It was her strength and dedication to her craft that pulled Melba through the unfair treatment and unequal pay for women in the male dominated music business. Melba later joined another famous female jazz musician, Billie Holiday, on a tour of the south but became so discouraged by the pay disparity and the indifference of audiences that she decided to quit music and get a job in education.

After three long years Melba's passion for the trombone was so strong that she returned to writing, arranging, and playing music; she even formed her own all-women quintet and in 1959 she released a solo album, “Melba and her ‘Bones” (slang for trombones).

We hope that Melba’s determination to master her passion and to rise above the struggles of being a woman musician will inspire us all to pursue our dreams no matter what.