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 Thursday, 26 November 2015
Marian McPartland, 1918-2013: NEA Jazz Master, Queen of Piano Jazz PDF Print
Written by Andrea Canter, Contributing Editor   
Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Marian McPartland (photo: Tim Hall)

“Marian was of course the brilliant artist and beloved icon of public radio. I was able to work closely with one of the strongest, most successful, vital, creative women of her time, someone who overcame every obstacle and who pushed through every glass ceiling.” – Shari Hutchinson, Executive Producer, Piano Jazz (NPR)


“Her legacy of programs is an American cultural treasure and a guiding light for public radio's continuing and expanding celebration of jazz and the artists who create it.” – Anya Grundmann, NPR Music



For my 40th birthday (don’t ask when), my parents treated me to a new home sound system—and my first CD player. My first purchase of this “new” media, recommended by my father, was Marian McPartland’s Willow Creek and Other Ballads, and it remains one of my favorites of a large collection of her music.  My dad, primarily a classical music buff, became acquainted with Marian’s music at club shows Chicago, where my dad would seek out some jazz on business trips. He was pulled in by her swing, her lyricism. As was I. The native Brit who became the sweetheart of American piano jazz passed away at her Long Island home last night at age 95.


Marian McPartland (photo Michael Ochs)
In 2011, Films by Huey released an extensive bio-pic in tribute to Marian McPartland, In Good Time. Filmed over a four-year period, this amalgam of interviews, commentary, performance videos, still photos and, of course, excerpts (video as well as audio) from NPR’s Piano Jazz broadcasts was held together through an ongoing dialogue between Marian and pianist Rene Rosness at the 90th birthday tribute to Marian at Tanglewood in 2008. Through music and interviews, the life of this tireless performer, composer, educator and broadcaster is revealed:  Born Margaret Turner in Windsor, England, she first tinkered on a piano at age 3. At 17, she entered the Guildhall School of Music in London, but soon left school to tour with a vaudeville group—over her parents’ strong objection, fearing she would marry a musician.  And she did – twice.


Marian met American cornetist Jimmy McPartland while on a USO tour in 1944; they married in 1946 and moved to Chicago, where Marian worked with Jimmy’s band. However, she was more attracted to the new jazz sounds of the budding bebop era, and when the McPartlands moved to New York in 1949, Marian formed her own trio, working at the Embers and then an 8-year stint at the Hickory House. Her marriage to Jimmy ended after 20 years, but “it didn’t take,” Marian once said of the divorce. When Jimmy was ill with cancer, Marian cared for him and they remarried shortly before his death in 1991.

Marian’s career truly took off during her Hickory House years, primarily performing in trio format and recording prolifically, and defying critic/pianist Leonard Feather’s dire prediction: “Oh, she’ll never make it: she’s English, white and a woman.” In 1958 she was asked to be one of few women pictured in the famous Art Kane photo, “A Great Day in Harlem,” standing next to friend and colleague, Mary Lou Williams. And her talents and reputation were not limited to piano performance and composing—she was in demand as a lecturer and commentator, appearing a schools and colleges and writing for Down Beat, Melody Maker and other publications. A collection of her essays, All in Good Time, was published in 1987 and reissued in 2003. In 2000, McPartland was named an NEA Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts; in 2004, she was awarded a Trustee’s Award Grammy for Lifetime Achievement; and in 2007, the Kennedy Center named her a Living Jazz Legend. She received honorary degrees from Hamilton, Union and Bates Colleges, Bowling Green University, and the University of South Carolina. Even Leonard Feather came around, noting in the mid 80s that "She is an exceptionally lyrical ballad performer, enriching and expanding the harmonic and melodic essence of every theme."

After recording for Savoy, Capitol and other labels in the 1950s and ’60s, Marian formed her own company in 1969, Halcyon. “It was quite a job,” she told one interviewer. “I used to actually go to a record store like Sam Goody and tell them, ‘I need that money you owe me.’ ” Over its decade, Halcyon released 18 albums, including releases from Teddy Wilson and Earl Hines as well as McPartland. In 1979, however, Marian went back to a label, this time Concord Jazz, where she remained until her final recording a few years ago. Primarily heard with a basic piano/bass/drums trio, Marian did record several solo albums, including a set of original compositions, Silent Pool with string orchestra, and composed a symphonic work, Portrait of Rachel Carson, performed with the University of South Carolina Symphony Orchestra in 2007. Although she claimed to have little faith in her skills as a composer, her songs were loved by many and recorded by Peggy Lee, Tony Bennett, and Sarah Vaughan, among others; many instrumentalists have also tackled her "Twilight World."

Marian McPartland (Getty Images)
But regardless of her lengthy resume, the world knows Marian McPartland as the host of Piano Jazz. “Every week for 34 years, Marian seduced her guests and her audience with her tremendous wit, compassion and musicianship,” says Anya Grundmann, Executive Producer and Editorial Director of NPR Music. “Piano Jazz was a gateway to unforgettable intimate moments between musicians who were at the top of their field, cared deeply about their craft and embodied the history of this great American art form.” Although originally intended as a program focused on pianists, Marian’s guest list expanded to include vocalists—Mel Tormé, Tony Bennett, Willie Nelson and Elvis Costello among them, and a wide range of instrumentalists. Still, her focus was mainly jazz piano, and she hosted the greats from Eubie Blake to Dave Brubeck to Cecil Taylor, as well as young up-and-comers. Marian continued to host Piano Jazz until 2010, when her health forced her away from the microphone and piano bench, turning over duties to guest hosts. Over the years, Piano Jazz was heard on more than 200 radio stations world-wide, and received a Peabody Award in 1983. Frequent guest host Jon Weber headed a “spin-off” in 2012 – Piano Jazz Rising Stars, now Piano Jazz With Jon Weber, sticking to Marian’s famed interactive interviewing and playing with guest artists.

Films by Huey’s In Good Time not only presented the life of Marian McPartland, but also shared her views of her art -- her thoughts on the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated music, her commitment to jazz education (“can jazz be taught?”), her concern for the environment (leading to her musical portrait of Rachel Carson), her approach to composition (“I hear a few notes in my head and write it down…. A tune just comes to me.”), and her definition of a jazz musician (“swinging, improvising, a sense of humor, ability to play in any key”).


Marian McPartland had been in declining health over the past few years. She is survived by two grandchildren. NPR Music is offering a gallery with 30 favorite moments from Piano Jazz and the entire Piano Jazz catalogue


“I didn’t have any idea I’d be good at something like this,” McPartland told The Associated Press in 2000. “I certainly never thought people would know me because of my voice.” We knew Marian from her voice but especially from her gently swinging piano and never-ending drive to make jazz accessible to everyone. That people might come from miles and miles away to hear her play never occurred to her. About ten years ago, I planned a Chicago trip around her gig at the Jazz Showcase. After her glorious set, she greeted the audience, and I told her that my father was a long-time fan and that I had come from the Twin Cities to hear her play. “I don’t believe you!,” she said.


But it was true. And I wish I had done it more often.

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