The good folks at National Public Radio should invite Marian McPartland to host a botany program. The 85-year-old already coasts the airwaves as the station's Piano Jazz host, a gig she's held for the past 25 years, engaging well-known musical guests in revealing conversations and friendly duets, but she also pays considerably artful attention to the Japanese maple and forsythia trees outside her Long Island, N.Y., house. The well-manicured front lawn surrounds a stone walkway that leaps up stairs into a narrow indoor hallway. Feet inside, a spacious kitchen connects to a dining area that's flanked by shelves of floral china. A porch extends into backyard pastures downstairs, with patches of green and yellow, while upstairs, the color of choice is pink: her pillows, rugs, and lampshades share that hue. Loosely composed watercolor paintings, which she "must have painted at 15," she says, line the walls beside her living room grand piano, which gets practiced "moderately," she explains. "I'm usually busy preparing for Piano Jazz or traveling to my [Manhattan] studio, which can take an hour in traffic."
A driver navigates into the city, so she can rest up, because her romance with the radio show is a full-time gig, requiring extra at-home attention. "I've received calls here from musicians' boyfriends or girlfriends on their behalf, asking to be on the show, and I think, 'What bloody nerve,' but then I think, 'Gee, that's what I would do!' I'm very diplomatic." Her low-register laugh reveals a playful sense of humor that her late husband Jimmy encouraged in her.
"I miss him a lot. Every time I go by, I wave," she says, pointing to a framed photograph of him that rests prominently on her kitchen counter. She met and married the Chicago cornetist after studying music in London and touring through Europe to entertain the Allied troops during World War II. She then performed with Jimmy briefly, before forming her own trio and extending a short stint at New York City's Hickory House into a decade-long residency there. Throughout the years, she has recorded more than 50 albums, founded her own imprint and released a collection of transcriptions and a memoir. "I don't have any intention of retiring," she says, stoically, provocatively and introspectively. "That's the most puerile thing in life. Retiring to what? I'm busier than I've ever been." She certainly seems that way, with demo tapes and music books transforming portions of her lushly carpeted house into neatly organized workspaces. "Sometimes I listen to Carla Bley's music while I'm doing exercises," she explains. "My routine is, basically, get up, do exercises, have oatmeal and a boiled egg, then make phone calls. My big social life is driving to the post office."
Most of the McPartland family lives in the south of England, and Marian confronts that distance as a geographical and emotional separation daily, but, she explains, "I have wonderful friends here, and I feel lucky every day." Her ability to adapt to new and unforeseen situations has become a trademark, and it's particularly handy during musical performances. "I just loved playing with Jason Moran at Birdland this year," she says, referring to a recent genre-blending duet with the dynamic young pianist. "If that's free jazz, great!"
Her favorite NPR guests have included Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson and Steely Dan, among others, but, she says, "There's at least one more musician I'm just dying to interview: Stevie Wonder."
Marian McPartland's latest CD is Contrasts (Concord), a double-disc reissue of Plays the Music of Alec Wilder and A Sentimental Journey With Jimmy McPartland. Plus, her Piano Jazz CDs-most recently featuring Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck and Rosemary Clooney-continue to come out via Jazz Alliance/Concord.