Little Melba and Her Big Trombone

by Katheryn Russell-Brown (Author) Frank Morrison (Illustrator)

Little Melba and Her Big Trombone
Reading Level: 2nd − 3rd Grade

Melba Doretta Liston loved the sounds of music from as far back as she could remember. As a child, she daydreamed about beats and lyrics, and hummed along with the music from her family's Majestic radio. At age seven, Melba fell in love with a big, shiny trombone, and soon taught herself to play the instrument. By the time she was a teenager, Melba's extraordinary gift for music led her to the world of jazz. She joined a band led by trumpet player Gerald Wilson and toured the country.

Overcoming obstacles of race and gender, Melba went on to become a famed trombone player and arranger, spinning rhythms, harmonies, and melodies into gorgeous songs for all the jazz greats of the twentieth century: Randy Weston, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, and Quincy Jones, to name just a few. Brimming with ebullience and the joy of making music, Little Melba and Her Big Trombone is a fitting tribute to a trailblazing musician and a great unsung hero of jazz.

School Library Journal

Starred Review

Gr 2-5--Music lovers will enjoy this picture-book biography of Melba Liston (1926-99), child prodigy and virtuoso trombonist who collaborated with most 20th century jazz greats. An excellent match of breezy text and dynamic illustrations tells an exhilarating story. Always in tune with music, seven-year-old Melba chose her first instrument from Joe's Music Truck. Self-taught and determined, she survived the gender-based taunts of high school boys while playing in Alma Hightower's after-school music club (using her horn to "turn all those hurt feelings into soulful music") and racial discrimination while touring with Billie Holiday's band. In the end, Liston "[made] her trombone sing" for audiences around the world and was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts. Russell-Brown's text engages the senses ("[Melba] especially loved Fats Waller, with his growly voice and booming piano"), while Morrison's distinctive illustrations, stretched out like a slide trombone, draw the eye across each spread to the page turn. Back matter includes a detailed afterword with two photographs and a bibliography of books, articles, interviews, radio broadcasts, and websites, including a Jazz Cafe, where students can view Liston performing with Dizzy Gillespie's band. Pair this book with Jonah Winter's Dizzy (Scholastic, 2006) and Marilyn Nelson's Sweethearts of Rhythm (Dial, 2009) to explore more fully the jazz culture of the time. A celebration of the talent and success of a little-known African American female musician, this title will enrich library collections.--Toby Rajput, National Louis University, Skokie, IL

Copyright 2014 School Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review

A musician plucked from jazz history is the subject of Russell-Brown's debut picture book. In the music-filled Kansas City of the 1920s, young Melba Doretta Liston wants to play an instrument, eventually swooning over a shiny trombone and learning to play. Staccato rhythms pepper the fluid prose: "Blues, jazz, and gospel rhythms danced in her head--the plink of a guitar, the hummmm of a bass, the thrum-thrum of a drum." Eventually, Liston's talent attracts the attention of Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, and others, but her struggles are laid out plainly: "Some white folks didn't show good manners toward folks with brown skin. Hotel rooms were hard to come by, and the band members often had to sleep on the bus." Morrison's oil paintings practically sway with a jazz beat, though somber moments crop up, too: the shadows on Liston's face signify the trials of life on the road. A final image showing long-limbed Liston in profile as she plays under the glow of stage lights is exquisite. Ages 6-10. Author's agent: Adriana Dominguez, Full Circle Literary. Illustrator's agent: Lori Nowicki, Painted Words. (July)

Copyright 2014 Publishers Weekly, LLC Used with permission.
Katheryn Russell-Brown

Katheryn Russell-Brown is a Professor of Law and the Director of the Center for Race and Race Relations at the University of Florida. She grew up in a family of music lovers, where jazz was an integral part of the sounds of daily life. A radio broadcast in 2008 about Liston inspired Russell-Brown to research the musician and eventually to write Little Melba and Her Big Trombone, her first picture book. Russell-Brown lives in Gainesville, Florida, with her family. Visit her online at

Frank Morrison has illustrated numerous award-winning books, including the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor winner Little Melba and Her Big Trombone, published by Lee & Low Books. Before becoming an illustrator, Morrison was a graffiti artist and b-boy. Morrison lives with his family in Georgia. You can learn more about him at

Lexile Measure
Guided Reading Level
Publication date
September 20, 2014
Age Range
6 - 10 years
Coretta Scott King Award
Honor Book 2015
Georgia Children's Book Award
Finalist 2016
Capitol Choices: Noteworthy Books for Children and Teens
Recommended 2015

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