A New Ensemble Highlights the Women (Almost) Written Out of Jazz History

The recently formed jazz group Mary Lou's Apartment spotlights compositions by black women in jazz. (Tim Burgess)

In the early 1990s, the late trombonist-arranger Melba Liston lived with her three aunts in a stately, old home in Los Angeles’ West Adams neighborhood. Though she had recently suffered a stroke, she was in the midst of creating some of her most vivid work for pianist-composer and fellow NEA Jazz Master Randy Weston, a collaborator of hers since the '50s. As the only female horn player to tour and record with some of the era’s definitive jazz orchestras, Liston had plenty of stories to tell when I visited her during those years.

She described repeated rapes on the road by fellow musicians with matter-of-fact sadness. She also remembered the support of one of her primary champions, trumpet legend Dizzy Gillespie.

Liston had made her mark on the L.A. jazz scene in the mid-1940s, playing and arranging for Gerald Wilson’s innovative big bands. When Gillespie brought her into his short-lived bebop orchestra at the end of that decade, some of the men grumbled loudly about a woman joining the band, asking, “Who’s this bitch?”

Gillespie ignored them and asked Liston to pass out an arrangement she’d written for the band. He counted it off and, within a few measures, it turned into a train wreck, with the top-shelf players confounded by her intricate writing. “Now who’s the bitch?” Gillespie cackled.

“They didn’t say anything about me after that,” Liston recalled.

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Liston has been on my mind lately because a recently-formed band is playing some of her music at Freight & Salvage in Berkeley on May 6. Co-founded and led by Oakland multi-instrumentalist Mwamba Blakwomyn (on bass) and Berkeley trombonist Pat Mullan, Mary Lou’s Apartment is a 12-piece, all-women ensemble created to celebrate the legacies of Liston and pianist-composer Mary Lou Williams, an essential figure in jazz’s evolution from the swing era to bebop and beyond.

Mary Lou’s Apartment shines a welcome spotlight on two African-American women whose outsized contributions to American music are too often overlooked and forgotten. The multi-racial band features a critical mass of black women players that’s almost unprecedented in recent decades.

“That was the idea, putting women, and black women, up front,” said Mullan, a retired librarian who’s also the band manager of Berkeley’s long-running Junius Courtney Big Band.

Vocalist Deborah Tisdale introduces Mary Lou's Apartment at a recent performance.
Vocalist Deborah Tisdale introduces Mary Lou's Apartment at a recent performance. (Lucy Jane Bledsoe)

“We didn’t want to get into the craziness of a big band,” she continued. “But we thought something like a 'little big band' could work, mainly to play great music and have a copacetic group to hang out with. The time we spend rehearsing is the best part of my week.”

It’s more than appropriate that the musicians revel in the hang-out time rehearsal provides. The band takes its name from Williams’s Harlem digs on Sugar Hill, at 63 Hamilton Terrace. She famously left the door unlocked when she wasn’t home so musicians could drop by and use her piano. The apartment served as an after-hours spot and convivial workshop for artists like Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Tadd Dameron and Charlie Parker, who sought out Williams for advice on various musical matters.

A child prodigy who was supporting her family before she turned 10, the Pittsburgh-raised Williams established herself as a commanding blues and stride pianist in the 1920s. She wrote hits for Benny Goodman (“Roll ‘Em”), Duke Ellington (“Trumpets No End”) and Jimmie Lunceford (“What’s Your Story Mornin' Glory”) in the swing era. Later, she was in the thick of the intellectual ferment that gave birth to bebop, supplying Gillespie with the hit “In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee” in 1945.

Williams is in the pantheon, but often overlooked: even some of the women in Mary Lou’s Apartment weren’t aware of her music.

Baritone saxophonist Jonnette Newton, a longtime educator who recently retired as the principal of the Bayside Martin Luther King Jr. Academy in Sausalito, grew up immersed in jazz. The niece of the great free-jazz drummer Sunny Murray, she admits she had “never heard of Mary Lou, even when my uncle was dragging me around New York to see music."

“I was awed when I first met a woman sax player, when I saw Vi Redd in L.A.,” Newton added, referring to the fiery bebop altoist, vocalist and grand-niece of Melba Liston’s early L.A. mentor, Alma Hightower.

Newton had heard some of Liston’s music, and since joining Mary Lou’s Apartment, she’s delved into Williams’s life, reading Linda Dahl’s 2001 Williams biography Morning Glory and regularly sharing snippets with her bandmates during rehearsals. But more than anything, she’s loved diving into the tunes.

“Both Mary Lou and Melba’s music is so complicated and quirky,” Newton said. “Mary Lou puts different formats into her music. For a minute, you’re going nice and smoothly — and then jagged and jerking — and she’ll tie all those movements together in one piece so brilliantly.”

Liston is best known for her decades-long collaboration with Randy Weston, but she was a first-call trombonist who played on hundreds of jazz, pop and R&B sessions. Though she only recorded one album under her own name (1959’s Melba and Her ‘Bones), she wrote arrangements for a bevy of classic albums.

Mullan spent time sifting through Liston's archives at Columbia College in Chicago while seeking out tunes for the band. She also traveled to Rutgers University in New Jersey to look through Williams's papers.

"It’s voluminous, and all in their handwriting, which is pretty amazing," said Mullan. "I got one of Melba’s better-known pieces out of the Chicago archives, ‘Ben Loves Lu,’ a lush ballad statement about Ben Webster that we feature Barbara Hunter on with her big, beautiful tenor sound.”

Mary Lou's Apartment's repertoire continues to evolve so that each performance offers a snapshot of the bandmates' latest investigations. Liston did a fair amount of writing for Williams, and Mullan hopes to present some of that material in the future.

At a time when women musicians inspired by #MeToo have been sharing accounts of mistreatment by male peers — ranging from disrespect to assault — Mary Lou’s Apartment provides a welcome look at black female brilliance that refuses not to shine.

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Mary Lou's Apartment perform at Freight & Salvage on May 6. More info here.

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