Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Taking Care of Music: Gender, Arranging, and Collaboration in the Weston-Liston Partnership

Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Taking Care of Music: Gender, Arranging, and Collaboration in the Weston-Liston Partnership

Article excerpt

"If you take care of your music, the music will take care of you": that was the advice that vocalist Leon Thomas remembered receiving from Melba Liston (Kaplan 1999, 424). Thomas's first professional encounter with Liston occurred at a rehearsal with Art Blakey sometime in the late 1950s. (1) As he recalled it, Liston arrived to "save the day": arrangements in-hand, accompanied by her instrumental "team" of Walter Davis (piano) and Sahib Shihab (baritone saxophone). Liston gave the following directions to an unprepared Thomas: "You do the singing, I'll do the arrangements!" (424). Thomas's remembrances of Liston--her advice and the story of their first meeting--provide a useful starting point for exploring issues of gender, arranging, and collaboration in Liston's career. To "take care of your music" in the professional sense refers to musical activities and personal qualities historically coded as masculine in discourses on aesthetics and culture, such as discipline, autonomy, efficiency, and mastery.

However, the phrase "to take care of" evokes feminine-coded practices and values: nurturing, selfless devotion, interdependence, and attention to detail. In her roles as arranger, composer, trombonist, musical director, and educator, Liston's career was defined by "taking care of music" in all senses of the phrase.

Perhaps the most striking instance of how Liston took care of her music, however, is the Melba Liston Collection at the Center for Black Music Research. Liston's material legacy--as she meticulously collected, arranged, and donated it to the CBMR--consists almost entirely of music. Scores, to be precise: forty-three boxes of music manuscripts (scores, parts, lead sheets), and only a single letterbox of papers. The score-centered nature of Liston's archive, as well as the nature of the scores themselves, showcases her body of work as an arranger and composer working behind the scenes in jazz and popular music. Liston's collection reverses the historical conditions in which she produced her scores, making visible for the public the products of creative labor that were sources for musical performances, sources largely invisible to audiences and listeners during her lifetime. The forms the scores take perform another kind of reversal, marking practices and histories of collaboration, interaction, and co-creation rather than romantic notions of authorship and autonomy, which are commonly assumed when dealing with notated music. As such, Liston's notated archive--or more precisely, the performance-centered musical events they participated in shaping--also troubles gendered and raced narratives of heroic creation and individualism in jazz.

This essay focuses on one musical moment from Liston's career, namely, her work with composer and pianist Randy Weston on the groundbreaking 1960 recording of the four-movement suite Uhuru Afrika. I examine issues of gender and collaboration in Liston's work as arranger, musical director, co-researcher, and conductor in the production of this project within several overlapping analytical frames. First, I consider gender in relation to discourses surrounding the historic role of arrangers in big band jazz and how these discourses resonate in Liston's partnership with Weston. Second, I ask how Liston's role and practices as an arranger enabled her to navigate the homosocial spaces in which she worked and how issues of gender, intercultural dialogue, and collaboration play out in the sonic and interpretive details of Liston's arrangements themselves. My argument is that through the musical agency of her scores--their expressive, dramatic, and formal dimensions--and through her presence and participation in recording sessions as conductor/musical director, Liston charted a collaborative and creative path to "take care of music" that worked within and against prevailing discourses about gender, race, and jazz. Finally, I relate her strategies and practices of "oblique writing" (Weston and Jenkins 2010, 74) to the interests and strategies of other contemporaneous black women artists and suggest that focusing on Liston's work in the making of Uhuru Afrika refigures masculinist narratives of collaboration and community during this transformative period in jazz. …

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