Three Degrees of Collaboration: The Liston Chronicles

Nov 12, 2012 | Music

Just back a week ago from the joint meeting of the American Musicological Society, Society for Ethnomusicology, and Society for Music Theory in New Orleans. Still trying to wrap my brain around why the meeting kicked my butt the way it did. Conference overload. First of all the thing was huge. Possibly too many concurrent sessions and for the first time, there were people I wanted to see, that I *knew* were in attendance, that I never, ever saw for one reason or another. My experience is that if you hang out in the lobby long enough, you’ll eventually run into everyone you want to (and many you may not). Just didn’t have a handle on this one in the same way.

Just the same, many notable moments and experiences on this trip. Fried oyster binge. Staying out past two like a modern day Cinderella to hear–experience–Rebirth at DBA. Visiting with friends old and new during and after the CBMR hospitality reception. And the Liston panel. As a part of its ongoing work, the Melba Liston Research Collective (MLRC) gave a panel presentation titled Beyond the Solo: Jazz, Gender, and Collaboration. I was proud to be a part of the panel and proud to report that collaboration manifests itself in positive, instructive ways at every level of the project.

Degree One

The Collective itself, dedicated to interdisciplinary consideration of the life and work of arranger, composer, trombonist, and educator Melba Liston, envisioned itself, from its inception, as a model for collaborative work in music scholarship. The MLRC is Lisa Barg, Tammy Kernodle, Dianthe “Dee” Spencer, and Sherrie Tucker. The CBMR has supported and facilitated the work of the Collective from its early days and last summer, created a residency in collaboration with the Chicago Jazz Ensemble so that the MLRC could come study the Liston collection together. The group has presented at the American Musicological Society’s annual meeting in San Francisco in 2011 and for the Society for Ethnomusicology this year in New Orleans. Among other projects, the MLRC’s research will make up the core of a Liston-themed special issue of the Black Music Research Journal slated for Spring 2014.

Degree Two

I co-authored and co-presented a paper with Sherrie Tucker, associate professor of American Studies, University of Kansas titled   “Not One to Toot Her Own Horn(?): Melba Liston’s Oral Histories and Classroom Presentations.”  We collaborated on every aspect of that paper–even tag-teaming its oral presentation in the session itself. More on this process in future posts. Suffice it to say here, it was difficult but deeply satisfying and resulted in a paper that I believe was more rich and insightful than if either of us had written it alone.

Our abstract:

“Not One to Toot Her Own Horn: Melba Liston’s Oral History Solos”
African American trombonist, composer, arranger, Melba Liston, is remembered by those who knew her as a valued, if reluctant soloist, and a quiet, modest person, who preferred to score arrangements than to play a featured solo with the band or hold forth in interviews. Yet she did both. Her trombone solos with the bands of Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Quincy Jones, Randy Weston and others are celebrated for their lyricism, embrace of a wide range of tone, style, and feeling, and rich pallet of tone colors. Her interviews and presentations similarly found her belying her modest demeanor to speak out in many ways, sensitive to the relationship between her performance of subjectivity and the parameters in which she navigated the dynamic interaction of conversation over time. This co-authored and co-presented paper draws on theories of oral history and performance and raced and gendered subjectivity in order to explore what Liston said when and to whom in a variety of conversations in which she collaborated with interviewers and students and spoke about her life and career as a trombonist and arranger. How can Liston’s presentational, narrative, and improvisational strategies as a speaker and interviewee inform our understanding of jazz as a collaborative endeavor?

Degree Three

Not only were all papers on the panel the result of collaboration, but they provided insight into jazz acts of collaboration that frequently get overshadowed by conceptions and practices of jazz as a soloist’s art.

Panel abstract:

Beyond the Solo: Jazz, Gender, and Collaboration
If one of the elements that has resulted in jazz being understood as a masculine discourse is the heroic individual represented by the horn solo (shaped by a long history of white fascination with primitivist fantasies about black masculinity as emotive, alienated, and uninhibited), then a re-centering of collaborative practices that abound in jazz practice and history can enrich our approaches to jazz studies, feminist musicology, gendered and raced economies of the music industry and labor, and music education. This panel considers four collaborative practices integral to jazz practice for most of its history–composer/arranger collaboration, jazz festival production and musical direction, film-scoring, and oral histories of jazz musicians–in order to raise questions about jazz, gender, and collaboration that are missed when the improvised horn solo (regardless of the sex of the player) is the central focus of jazz studies. 

While we could have chosen any number of artists, male or female, to anchor our panel, each panelist will present on a collaborative practice involving arranger, composer, jazz trombonist, and music educator, Melba Liston (1926-1999), herself a magnificent, if reluctant, horn soloist.

The panel was a success; we received a great deal of positive feedback.

I got back from New Orleans late last Monday night and had to sleep half of the next day. Deep collaboration is hard work, you see, but so worth it!

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