New Year’s Wisdom Courtesy of Melba Liston

Jan 13, 2013 | Music

It’s January 13th and we are well into the new year. The temporal flexibility and habitual relaxation of the holidays are behind us and its time for renewal. I need to renew my sense of discipline and habit around this blog (for sure!) but the blog is just a part of a larger project around professional renewal in general. More on that in coming posts. For now, I’ll just note that I’ve made a resolution to acknowledge  professional and personal blessings daily (of course there is often a fine line between the two).

Today is Melba Liston’s birthday which makes it the perfect day to acknowledge that a professional blessing has been my participation in an ongoing Liston research initiative. To borrow a favorite phrase of my dear friend and coach Amina Dickerson, the project is “thrilling and resonant” in ways that remind me of why I became a music scholar in the first place. The work is meaningful, collaborative, and personally interesting. I am working with an inspired team of colleagues in the Melba Liston Research Collective and in doing my own research on this project have come to feel like Liston herself is a treasured friend and colleague. She’s wise, funny, and smart. I recognize shades of similarity across time and place between challenges we have each faced in our work because of our multiply interpolated identities and I have learned much from her resilience and single-mindedness in response to these challenges.

Was she single minded! I mean, she *knew* she wanted to play trombone when she was like, seven! Picked it out of the store window with no prompting. She played with a vengeance in spite of the “fact” that it wasn’t a “girl’s” instrument. And then she knew that her first trombone instructor was not going to teach her what she needed to know the way she needed to know it and requested her mother  cancel the lessons. My first serious french horn teacher told my mother my lips were too big to make the proper embouchure and I still didn’t fire that @$$h*#%. My mistake was not in failing to believe I could rock the horn (because I did…believe and rock), it was in misidentifying this person as necessary to my path to artistic actualization. Liston had an uncanny self-understanding and faith. She knew what she wanted, knew what she needed, knew it resided largely in herself, but she also wisely nurtured (and edited when necessary) her network of resources and support to help ensure she could get what she needed. Much to learn from her wisdom! I’ll be cultivating nourishing relationships this year and simply refusing to give power, attention, or time to the undeserving and unhealthy types that seemed to surround me and suck out my energy in 2012.

While self-knowledge and determination certainly–necessarily–played a role in Liston’s success as a jazz artist, they didn’t always manifest as an impenetrable and unfaltering. A striking instance was her response to the trauma of getting stranded on the road while on a southern tour with Billie Holiday around 1950. Liston returned aware that she needed a break and temporarily retired from jazz to become an administrator with the LA department of education. In Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles  (Bryant, 1998), Liston said “Then I quit the band and went to work for the Board of Education. I worked there for three years or so. I was just too disgusted, so for about two years I didn’t do anything, and then I started getting back into it (259).” She left, she rested, she re-membered herself and she came back. Jazz fans everywhere are grateful for the last action, but I want to learn approaches to self-preservation and resilience from the complete cycle. Perhaps part of honoring ourselves, our own wisdom, our values, our time and energy, is knowing that sometimes it’s necessary to retreat, to rest, and to reflect. Knowing when to do this and building regular opportunities for it into our practice is another form of professional wisdom I am learning from Melba Liston. For that I am grateful. Happy New Year. And Melba, Happy Birthday!

Check out Liston’s musical wisdom in this performance of My Reverie with the Quincy Jones band.


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