By Andrew Gilbert
In the early 1980s, pianist Dee Spencer’s astonishing and unanticipated encounter with Melba Liston introduced her to a jazz wonderland.
A first-call trombonist best known as the arranger of choice for jazz giants such as Dizzy Gillespie, Randy Weston and Quincy Jones, Liston (1926–1999) had been embraced by the women’s movement for her pioneering work crashing through the brass ceiling. Her newfound visibility and the rise of women’s music events in the 1970s provided opportunities for Liston to lead her own bands, which is how Spencer ended up expressing her admiration to the trombonist and receiving an unexpected invitation.
“Melba said, ‘You should come by and stay with me at my place in Harlem, I could use a copyist,’” Spencer recalled. “This was before computers and people still used copyists, so I sat and copied her arrangements for her big band gigs and experienced her charts first-hand.”
Spencer, a longtime music professor at San Francisco State, went on to a distinguished career as a pianist and educator, but she treasures that formative summer living with Liston and has worked to raise awareness of the jazz icon’s extensive contributions ever since.
She presented her latest Listonian excavation, “The BluesFem Project: Smile Orange,” June 17 at Brava Cabaret as part of the San Francisco International Arts Festival. Accompanying a screening of the satirical 1976 Jamaican Blaxploitation-style film “Smile Orange” with a live performance of Liston’s soundtrack, she calls the project “a re-imaginging.”
“The film is this fascinating satire about the trials and tribulations of the Jamaican work force and the music is amazing,” Spencer said, noting that she mutes the film’s score and performs Liston’s film music “so people can see and hear how she worked with the actual footage.”
Spencer also contributed an arrangement of Liston’s tune “You Don’t Say” to the book of Melba’s Kitchen, the all-women East Bay band devoted to music by her and the great pianist, arranger and composer Mary Lou Williams (1920-1981). Dear friends and occasional colleagues, Liston and Williams were each awarded the nation’s highest jazz honor, the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship.
Co-led by trombonist Pat Mullan and woodwind player Nzingah Smith, who’s also the 14-piece band’s musical director, Melba’s Kitchen returned to Yoshi’s Tuesday, June 20. After a series of high profile gigs at home, the group got set to play its first concert out of town next month at the National Women’s Music Festival in Madison, Wisconsin.
“They are astonishing,” Spencer said. “I’ve watched the band develop from day one and I’m so proud of everything they’ve done. They are so swinging.”
Tapping into the Bay Area deep pool of talent, the band has commissioned arrangements from artists like Spencer and pianist Tammy Hall, who expanded on a version of “Rosa Mae” drawn from an appearance by Mary Lou Williams on Marian McPartland’s public radio show “Piano Jazz.”
“It’s a really tricky piece and Tammy has written a really funky version,” said Melba’s Kitchen co-leader Pat Mullan.
Just as the band was created to celebrate the genius of two overlooked Black women composers, Mullan said Melba’s Kitchen is always looking for opportunities to recruit or showcase Black women musicians, “whether in the band, with arrangements, or sitting in.”
With veteran players such as Georgianna Krieger on alto and soprano sax, Marina Garza on trumpet, and Renaye Brown on percussion, the group is particularly interested in connecting with young women, like guitarist Arnetta Olden, who spent several years studying and serving as a mentor at the Oakland Public Conservatory.
“She’s helping us as a roadie and she’ll sit in on a couple of tunes,” Mullan said. “She has a tremendous ear and is full of music. Some of us are getting up there in age, and we’re reliant on getting some young faces.”
I was thinking, ‘This is how it’s supposed to be done,’” Spencer recalled. “I met everybody. Everybody was sitting around and talking about the old days, and I was in heaven.”