Maestra Series: Mary Louʻs Apartment

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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.

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. (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.

Ashkenaz Music & Dance Community Center

1317 San Pablo Ave
Berkeley, CA 94702

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