Make No Bones About Melba Liston

It’s a cliché born from a kernel of truth that jazz is considered a man’s game. But throughout the history of this distinctly American innovation, women have played pioneering — if sometimes unsung — roles. Gifted trombonist and arranger Melba Liston was prime among them.

From the 1940s through the 1960s, Liston played in the big bands of luminaries like Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington and Quincy Jones. Later, she led her own groups and created challenging arrangements with the likes of Billie Holiday and Marvin Gaye. “Melba was one of the greatest jazz musicians of her era,” says Marshall Lamm, of San Francisco’s SFJazz Center. “She broke down so many barriers.”

This month, the up-and-coming jazz trombonist/vocalist Natalie Cressman and her quintet celebrated Liston as part of the center’s monthlong celebration focused on women and jazz. Cressman comes with her own sterling musical heritage. Her father, Santana sideman Jeff Cressman, also plays trombone; her mother is jazz vocalist Sandy Cressman; and Natalie “does both with aplomb,” wrote the San Francisco Chronicle. A former member of the SFJazz High School All-Stars, Cressman, 24, has already shared the stage with jazz luminaries such as Miguel Zenón, Wycliffe Gordon, Joe Lovano and Carlos Santana.

Her latest album, Turn the Sea, mixes jazz and pop hooks with a world beat into an eclectic mix that displays influences from her time touring with Phish front man Trey Anastasio’s seven-piece rock band. She says it’s all about “cross-pollination” in her selections. “I try to get across my point of view with the genres I include.”

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