Allegro Interviews Marian McPartland

Volume XCIX, No. 8September, 1999

Bill Crow

With 60 years of professional musicianship behind her, jazz pianist Marian McPartland is still going full steam. This elegant and imaginative modernist’s long career performing with her trio and as a guest soloist with symphony orchestras would provide more than a full schedule for most musicians. But Marian also finds time to compose, to write articles, to do clinics and workshops, and to host her weekly radio show on National Public Radio.

The award winning Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz, one of NPR’s most successful programs, recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. Her hour-long format features a different guest each week, with whom she carries on verbal and musical conversations. Marian and her guest play solos, with spontaneous chat between numbers. Improvised duets are a highlight of each show. The program has become so popular with musicians that her roster of guests is usually booked a year or more in advance.

The show has presented most of the major jazz pianists, as well as dozens who are less well known, but whom Marian feels should receive a wider audience. And she has broadened the program’s scope to include other instrumentalists and singers. “I try to get all the good women players on Piano Jazz,” said Marian. “People don’t know how many good women are out there.”

She fought her own battles early on, successfully challenging from the general assumption that jazz was a game for men only. English jazz critic Leonard Feather summed up the prevailing attitude in 1951: “She is English, white and a woman…three hopeless strikes against her.” Marian proved Feather wrong, and throughout her career has been a beacon of support for women in jazz, whatever their instrument.

Born Marian Margaret Turner in Slough in Buckinghamshire, England, she began her musical explorations on her uncle’s piano at the age of three. She tried to learn the violin to please her mother, but that didn’t last long. She was smitten with the piano, and with jazz. The radio and a friend’s record collection provided her with jazz pianists to emulate. She got a strong classical foundation in piano and composition at the London Guildhall School of Music, and then found practical experience playing USO camp shows in Belgium and France in the 1940s, where she met and married Jimmy McPartland, the famous Chicago jazz cornetist. In 1946 Jimmy brought his new wife back to the United States.

Marian played jobs with Jimmy’s band until 1950, when she formed her own modern jazz trio for a booking at the Embers in New York. From 1952 to 1960 her trio was in residence at the Hickory House on West 52nd Street, with an occasional hiatus for out-of-town bookings. (I was her bassist during four of those years.)

Marian and Jimmy continued to play together on occasion. They eventually divorced, but continued their musical relationship and remained good friends. “I was always sorry that Jimmy seemed to get pigeonholed in the Dixieland format,” she said. “He was capable of much more.” Two weeks before Jimmy died, they were remarried.

Marian told me that much of Jimmy’s collection of photographs, correspondence, recordings and other personal memorabilia has been given to the Chicago Jazz Archive at the University of Chicago Library. I asked about his horns, and she said, “I can’t part with them yet. I told them they would have them after a while, but not yet.” She said that Jimmy once gave one of his good horns to his great-nephew, who is now 22. “He showed a lot of promise,” she said, “but the last time I was in Chicago, I found he had transferred his interest to the banjo and the mandolin!” She hopes his desire to play Jimmy’s cornet will revive. “If it doesn’t, I’ll tell him I want it back!”

After making several LPs for established recording companies Marian started her own label, Halcyon, in the 1970s. She created an interesting catalog of recordings, composed and recorded quite a bit of original music, but found the business end of a record label too time consuming and passed that job to a distribution company. In the early 1980s she began recording for Concord Records. The label now features several dozen of her albums, including reproductions of a number of her Piano Jazz programs.

A current release is a collection of her musical portraits of some of her radio guests. “I got the idea from Chick Corea,” she told me. “He was on my show and was talking about his approach to improvising. He said, ‘I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to make a musical portrait of you.’ He played a pretty tune, and I decided to return the compliment, improvising a portrait of Chick. I did that with other guests from time to time over the years, and decided that a collection of portraits would make a nice album.”

Her newest Concord CD, just released, is a reunion of her best known Hickory House trio, with Joe Morello on drums and me on bass. She got us together last year for a couple of nights at the new Birdland, in Manhattan, and Concord recorded the proceedings.

Marian has written articles on occasion for magazines like Down Beat and Esquire. In 1987, Oxford University Press published a collection of her writing under the title “All In Good Time.” “I’d like to write more,” she said, “but it isn’t easy to find the time. I want to write something about the environment, and I’d really like to write something about Jimmy. But I guess I need deadlines to get things done. Like Duke Ellington said, ‘I don’t need time, I need a deadline!’ When an editor from the University of Illinois Press wanted me to update ‘All In Good Time’ for republication, I said I would write something but I told her, ‘Call me up and nag me!’ ”

Marian’s performances in symphonic settings began with the Grieg Piano Concerto, but over the years she has collected a number of arrangements that serve her well in such circumstances. Robert Farnon and John Oddo wrote symphonic music for her, and she has Alan Broadbent’s string arrangements of her own compositions from her Concord album “Silent Pool.” She also has a collection of big band arrangements by Jerry Dodgion, Phil Wilson and Deane Kincaid, which she enjoys playing. “I try to choose tunes that will appeal to symphonic audiences,” she said.

Since her 80th birthday celebration at Town Hall last year, Marian says she is constantly being asked about her plans for retirement. “Retire to what?” she asked. “When you like what you’re doing, are making money and having a ball? What I like best is being out there, keeping up with what’s going on. And when I have an evening free, I like nothing better than grabbing a friend and going out to hear some music. That’s my hobby.”