The media has been filled lately with tributes to Marian McPartland, who passed away on Aug. 20 at the age of 95. Marian was a dear friend, who gave me my first steady job in New York in 1954 at the Hickory House on 52nd Street. Joe Morello was the drummer, and I replaced Vinnie Burke, who had just resigned. Marian and Joe and I hit it off well together, and became old friends immediately. I spent several years at the Hickory House with Marian’s trio, learning and laughing and listening.
We were close to Birdland, the Band Box and Basin Street West, and often took a long intermission to run to one of those venues to hear a set by musicians like Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Erroll Garner, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and many others. And the Hickory House was a magnet for Midtown musicians. We met everyone there, and many of them sat in with us. We even got Duke to sit in one night. Often, Joe and I would be hired for recordings and concerts as a rhythm section team on the basis of our playing there with Marian. After I left that job to join Gerry Mulligan, I stayed in touch with Marian, and sometimes returned to play with her when she needed a bass player for a night. And in 1966, when she heard that my wife and I were buying a small house in Rockland County, she stopped by the place, introduced herself to the owner, and examined the premises to make sure we were doing the right thing. We were surprised, but glad to have her approval.
When Marian began her NPR radio program Piano Jazz, everyone was delighted. She had a sure touch with guest performers, making them comfortable, evoking their best playing, and in duets with them, matching them perfectly, no matter what their style. She eventually expanded her guest list to include musicians who played other instruments, and managed to create special moments with every one of them.
I was pleased when, a couple of years ago, Marian asked Joe Morello and me to rejoin her for a reprise of the Hickory House Trio. We did a Piano Jazz segment, a weekend at Birdland and a recording for Concord. We recorded so many extra tunes for Piano Jazz that, later when Marian was beginning to wind the program down, I was able to guest host one of her programs using the extra material that was still in the NPR files.
The last time I saw Marian was at a screening of “In Good Time,” a film biography of Marian that was shown in a library near her home on Long Island. She was in a wheelchair, but still bright and sassy and wonderful. I’m glad she had such a long, rich, rewarding life, and I’ll miss her forever.
Also see jazz rep Todd Weeks’ tribute to Marian in this issue.
Canadian writer Spider Robinson sent me this reminder of what life has sometimes been like for female musicians in the music world:
Spider’s sister-in-law Kathy Rubbicco just retired after years as Dionne Warwick’s orchestra leader. Kathy was the first female accompanist ever to work the Johnny Carson show, backing Leslie Ann Warren. As she walked onstage past the bandstand, there were some wolf-whistles, cat-calls, and murmured obscenities. Then she played. As she walked past the stand on her way out, there was pin-drop silence, except for one voice from the back row, “The b**** can play.”
Here’s a story that Ken Rizzo sent me:
Several years ago, Ken was playing acoustic bass for the Sunday brunch at the Metropolitan Club. We were about to break from strolling when the leader, Paul Errico, saw Mel Brooks sitting at a table with four or five “suits.” Paul said, “Before we break, we have to play something for him, but what?” “I know what to play,” I said as we walked over to his table, where he sat with his back to us, I said, “Mr. Brooks, we have a song for you.” Without turning around, he said, “No thanks, I don’t want anything from ‘The Producers.’” “Not ‘The Producers,’” I assured him. Still not turning around, he said more assertively, “No, I don’t need anything from ‘Blazing Saddles’ or ‘High Anxiety,’ either.” “Key of C, guys,” I said, as I began a fast two-beat, and sang, “A lion is eating my foot off. Somebody call a cop…” Brooks nearly fell out of his chair with laughter. Smiling ear to ear, he enthusiastically shook all of our hands, saying, “Thank you, thank you!” The “suits” looked on quizzically. He informed them, “That’s from my record!” (It was from his recording of “The 2000 Year Old Man”!)
Lew Liebman told me about a gig he played down in Cape May. The leader announced a tune, “And now, we’re going to play ‘Five Minutes More.’” As they began to play, everyone started to put on their coats and leave.