Konch Magazine - Melba Liston by Shannon Gibney

Melba: Listen

A skinny trombone-playing Black girl with a big, fat sound. Smooth. Writing dissonance, 1953, passing chords, passing chords…till you opened up to something beautiful. 
Why’d you hire that bitch to compose for us, anyway? You didn’t care in 1953, with your knobby knees and big fat sound. 
I just like it, so I write it. Damn, how simple! 
Melba. Liston. 
You were Zora before Alice brought her back, Frida after the age of Diego, Shirley Chisholm in ’73, Harriet Jacobs drawing our violated bodies in straight black letters on the page. 
And me at 16, a skinny trombone-playing Black girl with a flat, small sound, no idea you were there, had done all this before, smooth…Shit. I didn’t care about how other people reacted then, and I don’t care now. 
Straightening my skirt to hide my calf, laughing with the White boys while listening to Coltrane’s rhythm section tried in vein to keep up with him on the original Giant Steps recording (Tommy Flanagan could just not cut the changes), the dirt speck on the snare drum case while they dissected the relative merits and liabilities of the faces, the legs, the hair, the asses of the girls I sat with in American History class. I’d do her.
Earth Bird. Little Niles. You left them after a time to take a steady job, to prove to yourself that the notes didn’t always run your fingers. But what you learned was that they did, because the music brought you back. Even after the stroke, your right hand palsying the way through your newest waltz.She did it. From object to subject, you remade the grammar. 
20. 21. 22. Trombone in a frayed and scratched black case, gathering dust on my closet floor. The sound of Dolphin Dance in my arms, and air through the mouth piece growing fainter each day. I wanted the music to pull me back, I wanted to feel the thrill of recognition, but Melba, the world was so layered, so thick with color and light and language that I couldn’t push it back. So, the music and I let each other go, and it was all right…great, even…to just be with those notes (rather than inside them), to sink deep rather than whir.
And now, 15 years later, there is you. The unassuming, not-careful-at-all trombone player that didn’t fit in anyone’s jazz education class, or CD carrier. Walking past the corner to the gig, not acknowledging the lewd comments the men made about the oblong and awkward instrument you toted like a third limb. You. Your name on an assignment list, too easy, too bland to catch my eye.Smooth. Writing dissonance. Melba, something pulled me, and I listened.