Marian McPartland: Grande dame of jazz piano dies at 95

Jazz pianist Marian McPartland died on 20 August 2013 at her home in Long Island, New York. She was 95 years old.

She was born Margaret Marian Turner in Slough, England, on March 20, 1918.   
Marian began playing piano by ear at the age of 3, and at 17 she entered the Guildhall School of Music in London. Against her parents’ strong objections, she left school in 1938 to go on tour with a four-piano vaudeville act, taking the stage name of Marian Page. “My mother said, ‘Oh, you’ll come to no good, you’ll marry a musician and live in an attic,’” she recalled in 1998. “Of course, that did happen.”

She began entertaining troops in Britain and in 1943 joined the USO, entertaining US soldiers near the European battlefront. In 1944 she met the U.S. jazz cornetist Jimmy McPartland in Belgium. McPartland had been one of the Austin High School gang in Chicago in the 1920s which included Bud Freeman (tenor sax), Frank Teschemacher (clarinet), brother Dick McPartland (banjo/guitar), Jim Lanigan (bass, tuba and violin), Joe Sullivan (piano) and Dave Tough (drums). Marian and Jimmy married in Aachen, Germany in early 1946, and moved to Chicago soon after.

Marian worked for a while in her husband’s group, but he was a tradition-loving Dixieland musician and she was more interested in the new bebop sounds coming from New York, where she moved in 1950.

Marian McPartland, Bill Crow, Joe Morello

Encouraged by her husband, she formed a trio and found work at the Embers, a Manhattan nightclub, in 1950. Two years later, she began what was supposed to be a brief engagement at The Hickory House restaurant , 52nd Street, Manhattan which turned into an eight-year residency.

Here the Marian McPartland Trio plays at The Hickory House in 1954. Tickle Toe, is the tune. Bill Crow is on bass and Joe Morello on drums. Morello is probably best known as the drummer with the Dave Brubeck Quartet.

As a British white woman McPartland was an outsider in the American jazz scene.  She was one of only three women included in Art Kane’s iconic group portrait of jazz musicians on a Harlem street.   The photo -“A Great Day in Harlem” – was taken  on 12 August in the summer of 1958 by Art Kane for Esquire magazine.   Fifty seven of the leading jazz musicians then playing in New York City gathered at 10 o’clock in the morning (an unlikely time for jazz musicians!) at 17 East 126th Street, between Fifth and Madison Avenues .  Marian McPartland is in the front row with the large black handbag next to her friend, pianist Mary Lou Williams. Thelonius Monk is next to Mary Lou, figuring he would be most noticeable in his light coloured jacket and near a couple of good looking women!

In 1994 Jean Bach made a documentary about the occasion which is totally fascinating. Click on the picture below to link to the film.  The musicians were of course an unruly bunch, difficult to herd together, especially since many of them hadn’t seen each other for some time. Count Basie is sitting on the kerb where a group of local kids soon joined him. One of them kept stealing his hat!  Marian, as one of the few remaining alive from the original group,is one of the commentators on the film.

For a list of the musicians in the photo go to Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Great_Day_in_Harlem

Marian McPartland became an unexpected jazz star. She forged a distinctive style, made scores of albums and composed music and sogs that were recorded by superstars, including Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee and Sarah Vaughan

But perhaps her greatest contribution to jazz came later in life, through her illuminating interviews and impromptu performances with musicians on her long-running NPR radio programme, Piano Jazz. She was 61 when the first episode went to air  in 1978. By the time she stepped down in 2011 she had won a Peabody Award for broadcasting and a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement. She also helped a generation learn about jazz through her searching interviews, conducted in her dulcet-toned, sometimes irreverent voice. “Marian McPartland has done more for jazz pianists than anyone in the entire world,” the jazz impresario George Wein said in 1991.

Click on the picture below to listen to a Piano Jazz program recorded with Ray Charles in 1991.

The McPartlands’ marriage ended in the early 1970s but they remained close friends and continued to work together occasionally.  In the 1980s,  Marian and Jimmy decided that “our divorce was a failure,” and they moved back in together on Long Island. They had no children. In 1991 they were remarried 46 years after their first wedding. Two weeks later, Jimmy died.

Marian McPartland was without question one of the finest jazz pianists of her generation, and years from now her records will be making that fact perfectly clear to youngsters who’ve never heard of “Piano Jazz,” or radio.

The bare-bones accompaniment of bass and drums was always her preferred format, but she also appeared in concert with symphony orchestras, and in 1996 she recorded an album of her own compositions, Silent Pool, on which she was accompanied by a string orchestra.

And she continued playing almost to the end. Unlike some jazz musicians of her generation, McPartland never became set in her ways; her playing grew denser and more complex with time, and even late in life she was experimenting with new harmonic ideas.

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