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Columbia College Chicago
Melba Liston scores and other material

Melba Liston scores and other material

Liston, Melba

Music manuscripts including lead sheets, scores, and parts and 1 letter box of papers concerning her career.

44 boxes

Donated by Thelma Stattion, 1999.

Biographical note:

Melba Liston was a jazz composer, arranger, and performer born in 1926. She was a trombonist during an era (1942–1985) when few women played brass instruments and even fewer toured with jazz bands. She played in the bands of several important jazz musicians, including Count Basie, Dexter Gordon, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Randy Weston, and Quincy Jones. Liston had an active career as an arranger for important jazz composers as well as popular music record labels. She also worked with youth orchestras in the troubled neighborhood of Watts, California, leaving the United States to teach at the Jamaica Institute of Music for six years (1973–1979). After suffering a stroke in 1985 that left her paralyzed, she continued to arrange using a computer through the 1990s until her death in 1999.

Scope note:

The Melba Liston Collection primarily documents her careers as arranger, composer, and educator rather than her accomplishments as a trombonist. It contains lead sheets to her own and other people's compositions and manuscript scores of many of her arrangements for Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, and Mary Lou Williams, among others. One extensive series contains numerous arrangements for Randy Weston, and her late computer scores for him are also present.

Liston's career as an arranger for recording companies—especially Motown—and for performers such as Marvin Gaye, Ruth Brown, Gloria Lynne, and many others, is highlighted in most jazz reference books. Arrangements for performers can be found among her scores, although details about the specific arrangements are often cryptic. Also included in her score collection are musical arrangements and lead sheets dating from her years in Jamaica, although once again, related documentation is sparse or lacking.

As a pioneering woman performer and a respected arranger, Melba Liston deserves a comprehensive biographical study, but her surviving papers document very little of her life, reflecting mainly on her music, which to her was all-important. Performers will find her scores and lead sheets useful. Potential biographers will find it necessary to rely on secondary sources and interviews to place her music in its historical context.

The Liston music is inventoried in two main series: 1) lead sheets and 2) scores, both arranged in alphabetical order. Smaller series at the end contain her works for individual musicians, which reflects the organization of her scores as they were originally received.