Make No ’Bones About Melba Liston

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Why you should care

Because, as Melba said, “Just take care of the music and let the music take care of you.” 

It’s a cliché born from a kernel of truth that jazz is considered a man’s game. But throughout the history of this distinctly American innovation, women have played pioneering — if sometimes unsung — roles. Gifted trombonist and arranger Melba Liston was prime among them.

From the 1940s through the 1960s, Liston played in the big bands of luminaries like Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington and Quincy Jones. Later, she led her own groups and created challenging arrangements with the likes of Billie Holiday and Marvin Gaye. “Melba was one of the greatest jazz musicians of her era,” says Marshall Lamm, of San Francisco’s SFJazz Center. “She broke down so many barriers.”

This month, the up-and-coming jazz trombonist/vocalist Natalie Cressman and her quintet celebrated Liston as part of the center’s monthlong celebration focused on women and jazz. Cressman comes with her own sterling musical heritage. Her father, Santana sideman Jeff Cressman, also plays trombone; her mother is jazz vocalist Sandy Cressman; and Natalie “does both with aplomb,” wrote the San Francisco Chronicle. A former member of the SFJazz High School All-Stars, Cressman, 24, has already shared the stage with jazz luminaries such as Miguel Zenón, Wycliffe Gordon, Joe Lovano and Carlos Santana.

Her latest album, Turn the Sea, mixes jazz and pop hooks with a world beat into an eclectic mix that displays influences from her time touring with Phish front man Trey Anastasio’s seven-piece rock band. She says it’s all about “cross-pollination” in her selections. “I try to get across my point of view with the genres I include.”

Cressman started on the trombone at just around the time of Melba Liston’s death, in 1999. A 1985 stroke had left Liston partially paralyzed and unable to play, but she kept writing and arranging with Gillespie and Weston right up until the end. In curating tracks from Liston’s career for her SFJazz performance, Cressman saw a lesson for how talented female artists can thrive in an art form long-dominated by men. “She really let the music speak for itself,” Cressman said as she prepared for the show. “How she found her way gave me a lot of inspiration and hope that we can change this.”

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