Children's Literature Bookshelf

“Little Melba and Her Big Trombone,” by Katheryn Russell-Brown, illustrated by Frank Morrison. Lee and Low Books, New York, 2014, 32 pages, Grades 2-4.

“Little Melba and Her Big Trombone,”
by Katheryn Russell-Brown, illustrated by Frank Morrison.
Lee and Low Books, New York, 2014, 32 pages, Grades 2-4.

Orchestras are composed of musicians playing a number of instruments. The primary instruments are from the brass, woodwind, string and percussion families. The piano frequently is played in orchestras but is frequently used by itself in recitals.

Within the brass section, trumpets are most famous for range of musical scales and sound quality. Trombones are usually accompanying instruments and are rarely used in solo performances. But with the invention of jazz and bebop music, brass instruments began to play an increasingly large role. Trombones began to be seen as being capable of carrying entire sections of musical scores. Jazz music tended to begin in African American sections of American cities such as Kansas City, Mo.

In 1926, in Kansas City, Melba Doretta Liston is born. Her brilliant playing of the trombone will change its place in history. Katheryn Russell-Brown tells her fascinating story in the award winning picture book entitled “Little Melba and Her Big Trombone.”

Melba always had music in her bones. Even as a child, she claps her hand and begins keeping time with the music being played in her home and neighborhood.

At the age of 7, she sees a trombone for the first time and begs her mother to purchase the instrument. Her mother is skeptical because the trombone is bigger than Miss Liston. But she eventually buys the trombone and Melba starts practicing. Her grandfather teaches her how to how to cradle the horn and move the slide. At first Melba can’t even get any sound from the trombone. She almost gives up in frustration but is gently encouraged by her grandfather. With this help, she continues playing.

Soon it is apparent from her brilliant playing that she is a musical prodigy. Melba eventually moves to Los Angeles and is invited to play in a famous band for young musicians. Here again she is a star performer. By the time Melba is 17, the well-known jazz musician, Gerald Wilson, invites Miss Liston to join his band. With this, Melba begins a career that will span decades and includes partnerships with some of the most famous American musicians of all time. How does she do it?

How does Melba turn the trombone from an instrumental support piece into a majestic solo instrument? What troubles does she have to overcome in the segregated South? How does she overcome some sexist attitudes of the musicians in the very bands she is starring with?  Why is the perception of the trombone so enhanced by her brilliance? To find out the answers to these and other questions, go to the library and check out this interesting biography of Melba Doretta Liston.

The pictures are delightful in this book. You almost begin keeping time with Melba as she plays the trombone. The author and illustrator depict the close family relationships of the Liston family. The enthusiasm Melba has for playing the trombone is clearly seen in the fun and action packed drawings. This book shows the African American jazz scene in an interesting and fascinating manner. The book would make a good read-aloud in the classroom setting or a delightful shared book at home.

I hope you get a chance to check out this fine story. I really liked it and think you will as well. Enjoy!

Terrence Nollen




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