You'd think that any jazz musician who wrote for Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, Billy Eckstine and Randy Weston -- and also played trombone for Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones and Gerald Wilson -- would be known to all the world. But outside of connoisseurs, few are familiar with the pioneering work of Melba Liston, who arranged two of pianist's Weston's most ambitious compositions, "Uhuru Afrika" and "Highlife," and enjoyed a long-lasting artistic partnership with him.
Chicago saxophonist Geof Bradfield doesn't necessarily feel he's going to change all that with the world premiere of his extended suite "Melba!" But when he unveils the work Saturday afternoon at the Carter G. Woodson Regional Library, in the first of several touring performances of the piece, he certainly will be expressing his deep admiration for Liston's outsized contributions to jazz.
"It's amazing that people don't know who she is," says Bradfield of a composer who died nearly forgotten in Los Angeles in 1999, at age 73. "A certain generation of jazz musicians, especially people who worked for Dizzy, knew her well ? she was the writer. ... But my generation didn't."
Bradfield, 42, includes himself in that group -- at least as of a couple of years ago, when he began researching Liston's contributions in depth. Her collaborations with Weston had inspired Bradfield's sumptuous recording "African Flowers" (2010), so the next logical step for him, he decided, was to plunge wholly into her oeuvre. Realizing that the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College Chicago housed her papers, Bradfield applied for a grant to study her music and was practically overwhelmed by the originality and copiousness of her work.
"It made me grow up some as a composer," says Bradfield, of his Liston immersion, his composition underwritten by Chamber Music America. "There's a great feeling of unity in her work -- she uses a tiny amount of (musical) information and gets a whole piece out of it, as in 'African Sunrise,'" a landmark Weston composition she arranged.
"As a younger composer, I was more scattered, always leaping to this cool thing or that cool thing, but I didn't have enough patience. I got to learn how patient she was in developing her ideas. "The other big takeaway for me as a composer is that I always feel listening to her music that the musicians sound very free playing it, even though it's hard."
Bradfield says he tried to incorporate both those qualities in his new suite, though there was no point in attempting to mimic Liston's style. Instead, he fashioned a loosely biographical, six-movement work that explores particular scenes in Liston's life: her youth as a "Kansas City Child"; the jazz life on Los Angeles' "Central Avenue"; her collaborations as trombonist and writer with "Dizzy Gillespie"; her roughly 40-year musical partnership with "Randy Weston"; her stays in "Detroit/Kingston"' and her return to Kansas City, in the suite's "Hometown" finale. Of course, you don't need to be a jazz scholar to guess why Liston has been consigned to the footnotes of music history, for women who don't sing or play piano long have struggled to be heard in jazz.
"That's part of what led to her retirement from that world each time," says Bradfield, pointing to periods when Liston walked away from jazz. "There were many difficulties to being a woman traveling in this men's world. The jazz world can be very misogynistic."
Then, too, "arrangers and composer in jazz tend to disappear," adds Bradfield. "Unless you look at the fine print on the back of the record, you don't see who wrote the arrangements. You just see the bandleaders."
After the performance at the Woodson Library, Bradfield will be taking the piece across the Midwest, including to the campus of Northern Illinois University, in DeKalb, where he begins work as an assistant professor next month. He plans to record "Melba!" in 2013, and if the release enjoys the acclaim accorded "African Flowers," he could make a significant impact in raising Liston's profile.
"Just the idea of Melba Liston being almost completely unknown to my generation and younger makes this a great teaching moment," says the emerging professor. "It makes this a leaping-off point to talk about her music, to talk about something that very easily could be lost." Liston's work with Weston, adds Bradfield, "is as much a part of the history of jazz as Ellington and Strayhorn or Dizzy (Gillespie) and (Charlie) Parker. "When we look back to Randy and Melba, they were already involved in breaking down gender barriers and in globalization, when they did 'Uhuru Africa,' things we're talking about now."
The conversation could deepen once "Melba!" takes flight.