Liston, a childhood friend of Dexter Gordon, was an accomplished horn player when few, if any, women could be found in professional brass sections, especially on the trombone.
A trailblazer, she played, composed, and arranged for many jazz greats beyond Gillespie and Jones, including Williams and another pianist, Randy Weston. “Her stature as a trombone player, arranger, and composer is well-known in jazz circles, but there’s so much to learn from her life,” said Gordon.
Known as the “Queen of the Organ,” Scott played the Hammond B-3, a staple of jazz, blues, reggae, and rock from the late 1950s to the early ’70s. The Philadelphia native was still a teenager when she played her earliest gigs with John Coltrane before joining tenor saxophonist Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis’s band in 1955. She recorded 40 albums as a bandleader, a relative rarity in jazz, starting with “Great Scott!” in 1958 for the Impulse! label with legendary engineer Rudy Van Gelder behind the recording console.
Much of the racial and gender discrimination that Liston, Middleton, Scott, and Sullivan faced decades ago in the music industry is still with us. “It’s a serious problem,” said Gordon. While women are free today to play any instrument, teach at prestigious places like Berklee College of Music, and of course, work as professional musicians, they still do not get equal access to the most coveted gigs and venues for the same old reasons, she said.
“It has to do with money and capitalism and who controls it and who owns the record companies and the clubs — and they’re all white men.”
Gordon said researching the lives of these women has already “changed my life.” She pointed to the example of Middleton.
“She’s born in a place where Black people can get killed for being out after dark,” Gordon said of the vocalist’s “sundown” hometown of Holdenville, Oklahoma. Touring with Armstrong, Middleton traveled around the world for years to places where they were welcomed like visiting heads of state. “She’s in the U.S., but she got dressed in the back of a bus. They didn’t have dressing rooms where they played! So, it’s changed me.”
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