A tribute to Marian McPartland

Volume 113, No. 9October, 2013

Todd Bryant Weeks
Marian McPartland (1918-2013) was the grand matriarch of jazz piano.

Marian McPartland (1918-2013) was the grand matriarch of jazz piano.

The grand matriarch of jazz piano, Marian McPartland, died on Aug. 20 at the age of 95. It was a sad if inevitable moment. Despite her advanced age, it was hard to imagine that Mrs. McPartland could actually die some day. She was a fixture on the New York jazz landscape for at least 60 years. She was as much a part of the jazz scene as the music itself.

While researching a master’s thesis on the swing trumpeter Hot Lips Page in 2002, I discovered that Mrs. McPartland had been among the last musicians to record with Page before his untimely death at the age of 46 in 1954. The session itself was a lively one, recorded at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey in May of 1953. This is how I described their performance in my subsequent biography of Page, “Luck’s in My Corner”:

“One of the musicians hired to perform that day was a pianist who by all accounts was considered a jazz modernist. Marian McPartland . . . had made her name on Manhattan’s famed 52nd Street during the period directly following World War II, and was influenced by the bebop pioneers Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, and her compatriot George Shearing. If McPartland’s music seemed an odd choice for a group of G.I.s, her appearance at Fort Monmouth also reflected the momentous cultural changes afoot in the early 1950s that allowed for a hodgepodge of popular but distinct musical styles to co-exist in an ever-expanding marketplace.”

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was on to something. Not only was Marian McPartland comfortable in the idiom of Dizzy, Bird and Monk and not only could she swing with the Chicagoans Eddie Condon, Bud Freeman, Frank Teschmacher and her husband the trumpeter Jimmy McPartland, but as I learned more about her through my review of broadcasts of her highly successful syndicated radio program, “Piano Jazz,” she could literally play with anyone. Whether it was Bill Evans, Chick Corea, Teddy Wilson, Jay McShann or Keith Jarret, McPartland seem to have the infinite capacity to absorb the essential elements of the other’s style, and then integrate those elements into her own elegant, modern approach.

Marian McPartland was born Marian Margaret Turner in Slough in Buckinghamshire, England on March 20, 1918, and played piano essentially by ear until she began formal training at the age of 17, at London’s Guildhall School of Music. While seeking a classical imprimatur, she became interested in jazz and popular music, and began playing small concerts and parties. She left the school to join a four piano vaudeville act, and when war broke out joined the Entertainment National Service Organization, Britain’s version of the U.S.O. Turner met Jimmy McPartland while in Belgium.

“He was a G.I., manning a gun,” Mrs. McPartland told Allegro in 1999. “When somebody found out who he was…they pulled strings to get him out of combat so that he could play with our group. That’s how we got together. There was a rest area, and he would play at night in this hotel and I would play the piano, and then in the daytime, we would pile into this weapons carrier and play on the front lines. We would get sniped at, it was really quite dangerous. It was also great fun and something I really enjoyed.”

The couple were married and moved to Chicago in 1946. Although she often accompanied her husband on engagements, there was resistance among her fellow musicians – almost always all men – to her gender and nationality. She began working with her own modern jazz trio, and was eventually to land some long running and high profile stints in New York City, first at the Embers Club in 1950, and later at the Hickory House between 1952 and 1960. Local 802’s own Bill Crow played bass with her during four of those years. (It was in 1952 that Mrs. McPartland first joined Local 802.)

Mrs. McPartland went on to make dozens of LPs with various labels, and maintained a busy performance schedule through the late 1990s. She had hosted a radio show in the early days, and had played records on the air, and in 1978 she was given the opportunity to host “Piano Jazz,” which was to become the longest-running cultural program on National Public Radio.

At first Mrs. McPartland worked solely with pianists, interviewing them and playing duets, but as the years went on she began bringing in singers such as Tony Bennett, Carmen McCrae and Blossom Dearie. Later, she expanded the show’s format to include performances with musicians from outside the jazz world, performers such as Elvis Costello and Betty Buckley. She became perhaps the most widely known female jazz performer, with an enormous radio following. She was a great interpreter of standards, but shined equally for her on-air presence in the role of the show’s smart, convivial host. When I interviewed her in 2002 about an obscure location recording and her performance at Page’s November 1954 memorial service, she recalled little about those dates. But that didn’t stop her from patiently answering all my questions. It was during that interview that I came to understand what kind of a person she was. She was by turns frank (“Americans can be so crass,” and “Record companies, and I must say this, are often full of shit,”) and witty (“Well, I guess I should remember more about Hot Lips Page. After all, I played the man’s funeral!”). But the main qualities that resonated from Mrs. McPartland were graciousness – and wisdom.

Something she said to me at the end of that interview has stuck with me ever since. “You seem like a nice person,” she offered as we were saying goodbye. “But don’t allow your politeness to get in your way. It’s important to be friendly and respectful, but just remember, not all the turkeys are in the barnyard, and some of them can be mean. Be nice, kid, but be careful.” She will be missed.

Also see Bill Crow’s tribute to Marian McPartland in The Band Room.