Marian McPartland

RIP Marian McPartland, the queen of jazz

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013

Marian McPartland, the grande dame of jazz piano who popularized the music on her NPR program Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz for more than 30 years, died Tuesday night at home in Long Island of natural causes, NPR is reporting. McPartland was 95.

The English-born pianist was a fabulous advocate and ambassador for the music and a fine pianist of outstanding imagination, poise and harmonic understanding.

Born Marian Turner in Slough on March 20, 1918, she began playing piano by ear at the age of three. She developed into a prodigiously talented young classical musician who took to jazz and vaudeville. During the Second World War, she entertained troops in USO shows, and while performing in Belgium, she met her future husband, the American cornetist Jimmy McPartland.

She and her husband moved to New York and in 1952 McPartland began her now-famous decade-long gig at the Hickory House, a New York steakhouse.

Her star rose, despite the chauvinism of the times and the jazz world. At the time, Jazz critic Leonard Feather’s gloomy assessment of McPartland was: “She is English, white and a woman — three hopeless strikes against her.”

In a 2004 interview, McPartland told the Vancouver Sun‘s Mark Andrews that she turned the Hickory House into a veritable jazz clubhouse: “Benny Goodman, Oscar Peterson and Duke were there all the time,” she says. “Duke would sit in with the trio if I asked. It was heaven. Then between sets, we’d run over to Birdland if Charlie Parker or the Basie band were there.”

She began her radio career in 1964 with a program on WBAI-FM in New York. Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz debuted in 1978 and McPartland hosted until her retirement in 2011. She was a warm and remarkable host who charmingly interviewed her guests and elicited great performances from them. The monumental guest list here is stunning — everyone from Mary Lou Williams, the show’s first guest, to Steely Dan, with names such as Brad Mehldau, Bill Charlap, Esperanza Spalding, Dave Douglas and Dick Hyman in between.

“I guess I just want jazz to be heard, all sorts of jazz: young, old, bebop, avant-garde, traditional,” McPartland told Andrews. Her statement and example are a lovely counter to the factionalism of today’s jazz scene.

In 2004, When she was just 86, McPartland played in Ottawa, with Toronto jazz heavyweights Don Thompson on bass and Barry Elmes on drums. In her interview, with the Vancouver Sun‘s Andrews, McPartland said her playing had become more distilled because of the effects of arthritis.

“I don’t play so many notes these days,” she said. “I’ll take time out to wait in a phrase. I’ve found that it’s fine to be quite silent for a minute or two.”

And yet, my Citizen colleague Doug Fischer reviewed the Ottawa show and was delighted when McPartland began to get “frisky.”

Doug wrote: “Imagine your grandmother diving into the dissonance of an Ornette Coleman tune and you begin to get the idea.”

“Although she introduced Ramblin’ as one of the avant garde saxophonist’s “less dangerous” compositions, her interpretation wasn’t a safe one, presented with choppy, angular chord bursts and playful interplay …

“Even her take on old standards like Jerome Kern’s All the Things You Are was far from common. Generally performed as a bright, airy springboard for improvising, McPartland gave the tune a darkly introspective start — a ‘fake fugue,’ she called it — that never turned trite, even when she picked up toward the end of the piece.

“Later she returned to [Billy] Strayhorn with Raincheck, in which she mixed rumblings from the deep end of the keyboard with splashes of light notes at the high end, all presented with watertight timing and her trademark deft touch.”

I caught the tail end of the show. It was a still, summer Saturday night and McPartland was utterly in her element, entertaining the crowd with not just music, but also jokes and stories that may well have reflected her vaudeville roots. McPartland went long into the night, till 11 p.m. or so., long after all other Ottawa jazz festival concerts had ended.

More proof of her enduring musical vitality: Before she turned 90, McPartland composed and performed a symphonic piece, A Portrait of Rachel Carson, for the famed environmentalist.

McPartland accumulated awards galore, from a Grammy in 2004 to numerous honorary doctorates. She was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2004 an an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2010.

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