Marian McPartland: True Devotion

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Marian McPartland
By Gene Martin
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Marian McPartland
By Gene Martin

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It has been a long time since the first Marian McPartland trio turned heads at New York’s Hickory House. That was back in the early 1950s, and there’s been no stopping her since. Now 77, she seemingly still possesses the energy of a teen and continues to seek new musical heights. Even the most casual listener can affirm that the 1997 version of Marian McPartland is up to date, current, and always ready for something new and innovative. She doesn’t stand still—and neither does her music. It’s the essence of jazz and the essence of Ms. McPartland.

During her career, she’s won numerous awards and will be saluted this year as the guest of honor at the JazzTimes Convention in November. She’s won the Peabody Award and the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for her National Public Radio program, “Piano Jazz,” and she’s also walked off with the Duke Ellington Fellowship Medal from Yale University. Additionally, she holds honorary doctorates from Ithaca, Bates, and Union colleges.

Obviously, jazz education plays almost as big of a role as music itself to this timeless artist, who has a passion for leading others to the joys and satisfaction of jazz, as well as helping new talents make their way to the public’s ear. She has taught and played for kids in inner-city schools—bringing jazz legends along with her—and has enjoyed an appreciative and worldwide audience now for 18 years.

Her influences and inspirations have spanned the piano jazz spectrum. “Everything that happens in jazz is interesting to me,” she states, “and I don’t want to keep playing the same things I’ve played before in the same way. There’s room for all kinds of jazz, and, after all, that’s what makes jazz what it is.”

She was born in England and began a career in classical music, which quickly evolved into a love affair with jazz. She met and performed with cornetist Jimmy McPartland in Belgium during the war and came to America with him as his bride. She began her gig at the Hickory House and quickly branched out to international prominence, forming her own label in 1970 (Halcyon), and later signing with Concord Jazz, recording her first album with them in 1979. She also is a Grammy-nominated composer, and her discography contains more than 50 titles.

McPartland has played all over the world and established herself as a national treasure. Her schedule, exhausting for a lesser mortal, has included playing at the usual small clubs, colleges, and jazz fests, to a gig before the United States Supreme Court [at the invitation of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor]. And McPartland’s recordings keep on coming, her latest release on Concord Jazz being Silent Pool, featuring original compositions performed with strings and conducted by pianist and arranger Alan Broadbent.

Because of her gifts, her generosity, her passions, and her music, Ms. McPartland has acquired a vast and diverse audience. She’s also fortunate to have many colleagues, associates, and admirers who think she’s not only a great player but also a great ambassador for the music. What follows are comments from 17 of them who have played important roles in Marian’s professional and personal life. There are praises, reminiscences, anecdotes, and insights. Most of all, there’s a deep affection for this gifted British import who has made a lasting contribution to the musical landscape of the planet.

Taking part in this tribute is disciple Joanne Brakeen, who credits Ms. McPartland as a mentor; bassist Bill Crow, who gigged with her at the Hickory House in the 1950s; fellow pianist, countryman, and soulmate George Shearing; bassist Milt Hinton (Marian has predilection for attracting the finest in bass players); Michael Moore, another bassist who admires Marian as “a natural promoter,” and, of course, Billy Taylor, who shares Ms. McPartland’s passion for education and pianistic excellence.

Look, too, for comments from another piano legend, Dave Brubeck, whom we managed to track down while on an exhaustive European tour; singer Joe Williams, who still relishes his appearance on “Piano Jazz;” Murray Horwitz of National Public Radio; drummer Jack DeJohnette, who appears on the Concord label with Marian; Glen Barros, the president of Concord Jazz; historian and Pulitzer-Prize-winning author (and deejay) Studs Terkel; pianist Tommy Flanagan; bassist John Clayton; fluegelhorn master Clark Terry; George Wein, founder of the Newport Jazz Festival, producer of the JVC Jazz Festival in New York, and CEO of Festival Productions; and NPR producer Sherri Hutchinson, from South Carolina Educational Radio, who produces the “Piano Jazz” series.

Joanne Brakeen

Whenever I think of her, I just see every kind of color imaginable. She’s very playful, yet very intelligent at the same time. And what’s wonderful about her is the extraordinary energy she has; Marian’s still acting like she’s 17. She’s not afraid to take on any kind of venture that she thinks will promote our music or the business—like her “Piano Jazz” radio show. She’s educating the public about what’s really going on.

She’s magic! She has perfect pitch! You go to a show or something with her and she’ll pick out every note. She’s really amazing. And she can fit in with most any kind of personality. You can hear it on her show. She’ll bring out a person from one part of the jazz spectrum and then shift gears to someone from the opposite spectrum. She does it so easily, both in the talking and the playing. She has fun with everyone in jazz.

Bill Crow

I met Marian in 1953 or ’54—it was when I was working with Terry Gibbs’s quartet. We were on the same concert tour with Marian’s trio and not long after that Terry went on to the coast and I was jobbing around New York. When Marian’s bass player left her trio at the Hickory House, I joined her there. I stayed on a couple of years and then did some things with Gerry Mulligan. Marian’s one of the good players around, and I’ve always loved her harmonic sense. She’s also one of the richest players I’ve ever worked with; she has a truly lovely attitude toward the music and the musicians. Marian is a very positive presence on the jazz scene.

Those years with her at the Hickory House were great. She was on display in the center of that oval bar doing what she did best, and she wasn’t half the player that she is now. But she was still exceptional. She’s just grown more and more over the years. Nothings seems to stand in her way. Every record of hers is just better than the one before.

George Shearing

We both speak the same language. We’re English, of course, but we speak a similar language in music, as well. We did an album together and she is great fun to play with. She probably has more of her English accent left than I do, but that changes when we go to England. I don’t get into technical descriptions of her playing; I can’t say she sounds like Bill Evans, and I can’t say she sounds like Hank Jones. I suppose eclectic is the word for her.

Where she really shines, though, is as an educator. This “Piano Jazz” thing has been marvelous. She has so many people on that program—I’ve been on it three or four times—and, as a result, she brings people in to the music. She makes people aware of jazz, and this exposure is an incredibly healthy thing.

Billy Taylor

What I admire most about Marian is that she has been a pianist who has always wanted to grow. To hear her progress from her Chicago-style playing to the cutting edge of things in terms of her trio playing is terrific. Not many musicians could make that transition. Since she’s been doing her own show and matching wits and talents with her guests, she has really blossomed. Many of the things that her guests have suggested she just follows right along with. She’s not only a very fine pianist, but also very flexible.

Her growth as a musician has a way of sneaking up on you—like when you know someone from early on in his or her career. You’re not always aware of the changes, sort of like someone in your family. You know they’re getting older and maturing, but all of a sudden you look up and here’s a fully grown person.

Studs Terkel

It’s really a toss-up about what’s best about Marian. On one hand, it’s her musical gifts, and on the other it’s her sprit of generosity. Everyone knows she’s a gifted pianist, but it’s her generosity to other musicians that is so incredible; it’s the way she gives them openings and encourages them. That’s a quality that makes her unique.

She came from England and met Jimmy during World War II, a British woman who came to understand American jazz so well. Her passion for education reaches the world and she achieves it without any pretentiousness. Somehow, the marriage between her and Jimmy, the middle American, was a natural. She’s absorbed the two cultures very gracefully.

Dave Brubeck

I’ve known Marian since the early 1950s. I recall somebody back then asking me to name my favorite pianists, and Marian was in the top three. She is still a fantastic player who is dedicated to the furthering of jazz, especially jazz piano. I hope her program stays on NPR for as long as she wants it there. She deserves all the recognition she can get.

I’ve got a tape here in Europe with me of the last show we did together for “Piano Jazz.” It was a Borders Books in Washington, D.C. You know, that tape really brings out Marian’s tremendous wit and quickness as an interviewer, and it also shows her capacity as an improviser on dual piano, along with her great versatility with the various styles of jazz she features with other artists on her show. Each has his or her own style, but she fits right in with every one of them.

Glen Barros

At Concord Jazz, we work with Marian at different levels, not only as a recording artist, but we also release her “Piano Jazz” shows on CD. She’s an ambassador for jazz and for our label, as well. We have two young artists right now who Marian has brought to us—saxophone master Chris Potter and vocalist Eden Atwood, who sang McPartland’s “In the Days of Our Love” on her recording, There Again. Marian went out of her way for both of these artists. But she maintains good relationships with the majority of our roster of musicians. I’ve never heard anyone say a bad word about her.

Her music is special because of its lyrical quality. It’s pure jazz, yet if follows through with that ambassadors theme because people who don’t even consider themselves real jazzers understand what Marian is doing and what she’s all about.
Her music is also very intelligent. There is a point, in terms of record sales, where intelligence can hurt you. When an artist goes for pure sophistication in what he or she is doing, sometimes they can lose an audience that doesn’t care to get it. I think that true intelligence, the kind Marian displays, is a blend; it’s sophisticated, but presented in a way that the audience can grasp instantly. Marian achieves this. She’s kind of right there. A perfect example her record we’ve just released, Silent Pool, which we’re personally in love with. It summarizes Marian’s work and it’s pure elegance.

Michael Moore

Marian epitomizes the open artistic mind, consistently searching but never bending to popular fads. She’s always dedicated herself to the highest musical ideals, and balanced with great care for her audience. And all of this, combined with her constant support for young musicians, makes her one of America’s most important jazz musicians.

She’s never been locked in one particular style. and always kept an open mind about her music. I can say that as long as I can remember, she kept growing all the time. She never was content to be in one place and always kept improving. She has great ears and great harmonics.

Jazz trio is her best format, but she’s also capable of playing great solo piano—and there are very few great solo piano players. Many can do the trio gig, but they aren’t comfortable playing solo. In a way, she’s even more free in the solo format. Because of her ear, she can go into two or three different keys in a tune and shift with no problem. She’s free to do that in a solo thing.

I remember working with her on a live TV show in Boston, “The Dave Garroway Show.” That was about 1970. She started playing “Stella By Starlight” in the key of D, which threw me for a loop. It didn’t matter with her, of course—but I had to play a solo.

She was also successful putting herself into a classical mode later on, and she was very dedicated to that pursuit. It’s admirable that she wanted to do it; not many jazz musicians try to access the classical world.

Joe Williams

McPartland—hey, I met her some time ago and I enjoyed working with her, as well as listening to her radio program, which is one of the bright things that’s happened in this country recently. There are many artists with whom she’s worked, particularly the things with Ellis Larkins and Sarah Vaughan, who, as many people don’t realize, was also a piano player. And Marian’s a fun person, too. Giggly like a schoolgirl.

The Brits have a marvelous sense of humor; I should know, I married a Brit. Marian’s harmonic concept is one of the things I love about her playing. When we were working together I was singing something and thinking about the support she was giving me with her chord structures. How marvelous they were. Musicians in that situation often don’t have a musical conversation between a human voice and a piano. I mean, one does not always support the other for one reason or another. She spoke about it on the program. She said she listened to me, but she never really felt me quite like she did when we worked together. We were conversing musically and it was a different experience altogether.

She has great depth and perception. I’m so looking forward to seeing her again. You know, she’s getting a doctorate from Hamilton College this year.

Marian is piano..harmonics, and colors.

Billy Taylor

I’ve always had a passion for education. When I was in college, my first degree was a bachelor of science in education. Of course, Marian’s been a mentor to a lot of people; she’s the kind of person who reaches out to others whose talents she admires and I’ve always admired her for doing so, and she never takes any credit for her successes. When I was doing my radio show, she’d call me up and say, ‘Billy, have you heard so and so, and so and so...” Just kind of pointing the finger at someone whose talent she admired.

I suppose it’s hard to say if Marian’s playing has influenced me, because we both go in slightly different directions. My playing has been so influenced by Art Tatum that very few people get between that and me. But you are, whether you know it or not, always influenced by someone whose work you admire. I have admired her work for many years.

Her playing is very subtle, very sophisticated, very melodic. She has developed a very personal approach to contemporary harmonies that I think suits her direction these days. Marian is the kind of person who looks for interesting melodies, and that’s reflected in her solo work.

And she’s marvelous as a solo artist; she’s a two-handed pianist, which is something not always present in the playing of some younger pianists these days. They tend to need a rhythm section to do some of the things they want to do. But her playing is very complete by itself.

Milt Hinton

Marian and her husband were good friends of mine, and we did a lot of wonderful things together. You can really tell a lot about a person when you work and travel with them. Not only is Marian a fabulous musician, but she’s also a guide when you’re on the road with her. I’ll always remember my tour with her and Louie Bellson. Man, that was a great gig.

John Clayton

I first met her on the recording session we did for the Benny Carter Songbook. Of course I listened to her records and followed her career as I was growing up. I grew to understand and appreciate her style and touch, in the style of people like Bill Evans. It’s all harmonics and touch. She’s got that Flanagan, Hank Jones, Bill Evans sensitive touch. I’m sure her solos are intuitive, but when you look back on them, they are so gorgeous that you naturally assume they were thought out before hand. She’s a very intelligent player.

It was very strange for me to see this genteel and very British woman, whom I thought you had to handle with velvet gloves, do something and then shout out, “Shit!” And your eyes would just open wide and then, of course, she would apologize and return to her genteel nature.

George Shearing

I met Marian one time in Chicago. I invited her up for a cup of tea. She was very amused by how meticulous I was about the process. I told room service: “Now if you’re using a pot that holds three cups, put four teabags in it. And have the water on a rolling boil, put the bag in, and let it steep for five minutes. Then bring it to the table and we’ll pour it; I don’t want it premature. And please send milk with it—not cream.” Marian thought this was highly amusing. She, of course, shares my love for tea, and the entire experience remains a delightful memory.

Bill Crow

Yeah, Marian has a sense of humor. I think she was considered kind of an oddball in Britain among the dignified people she grew up with. When she came to this country, her accent made people think she’d be rather stuffy, and the fact that she has an outrageous sense of humor just delighted everyone. She also has a personal touch that’s remarkable. I’d watch her with amazement as she would say hello to someone in the club whom she had met maybe six years ago and call that person by name and ask about the family. She attached a group of fans to herself in a very personal way. I still run into people from the Hickory House days who consider themselves personal friends of Marian’s through her music.

Joanne Brakeen

What you see of her on stage is what she’s like off stage, as well. One time we played at this park in Atlanta. We were doing a duet, and early in the morning the organizers asked us to come to the park to do a sound check. There were huge balloons everywhere in the park and people were wearing them as headbands. I said to Marian, “Why don’t we wear them in our concert?” She immediately agreed, so we got some balloons and when the concert started we started out very straight. Then I went backstage and got them and we both played with these balloons on our heads while the audience roared!

I will always tell Marian that she’s my mentor. Just looking at her has made me much more conscious of what I can do to promote jazz—and my own career. She’s great at promotion. Between her and Billy Taylor, look what you’ve got! These two people have done enormous things for the music, as has Wynton. All are so open and looking to do anything they can to push our music forward.

George Wein

I remember her playing in a small club in Boston that was a competitor of my club, Storyville. She was playing with Jimmy, who was my friend, so I went over to hear them. I’d heard about this English girl he married, and I loved her from the minute I saw her. I soon hired them to play at Storyville and from there she went on to the Hickory House. She left working with Jimmy, but she was devoted to him his whole life. They were always together.

Jack DeJohnette

I did a show with her on “Piano Jazz” that’s on a Concord CD now and I even played piano with her. It was fantastic playing with her, and we had Christian McBride on bass. Talk about fun. Marian is really quite a young lady; her chronological age has nothing to do with her curiosity and her sense for taking chances. What a great gig “Piano Jazz” is for her! She interacts with all the greats who play the piano.

Marian is also very sophisticated harmonically and she’ll always be game for trying something new. She’ll hear something and ask, “What’s that?” She’s not afraid to ask questions, and the questions she asks are good ones. That’s the important thing about Marian McPartland. And that’s how she keeps growing. She’s a fabulous lady and I hope she’s around for years to come.

Michael Moore

When I was working with her, we’d go to a concert in, say, Rochester, and the place would be packed—not because she was Marian McPartland, but because she is so smart about business. Everyone has mailing lists nowadays, but then, when she had her own label, she had a mailing list for every town she played in. She’d send notices out in advance and the place would be packed; she’d spend all her breaks talking to everyone Marian did this all of this promotion by herself. Most musicians at that time expected the labels to do the promotion, but Marian took it upon herself and she worked very hard.

She could help a lot of young people with the business end of the music. She’s a natural promoter and very straightforward. She’s says what’s on her mind, and not in an obsequious way. Marian has always kept her dignity without ever selling out.

Clark Terry

I don’t really recall when I first met Marian. She’s one of those people you think you’ve known all your life. She’s been as endearing as anyone and she’s very refreshing to play with. She has a thorough knowledge of chord structures and inversions of chords, and her approach to rhythm is positively beautiful. It’s surprising that a lady like her can swing so good. She can really move out; it makes some people say that she plays “pretty good for a girl!”

Michael Moore

I started playing with her when I moved to New York in 1969. I think John Bunch recommended me to her. She was really encouraging and recorded four of my songs. Marian is always open to new players and has the reputation of always working with great bass players. Some that I admire the most came through her trio—Steve Swallow, Eddie Gomez, Dave Holland; she was great for me.

Murray Horwitz

My relationship to the show was first as a listener and a fan. I came to NPR in 1989 and now serve as vice president for cultural programming. We acquire “Piano Jazz” from South Carolina Public Radio for distribution.

One of the things about the program that is most gratifying and accounts for its success is that Marian does not believe in a “great unwashed.” She believes that people have bigger ears than we give them credit for and that they’re capable of understanding more than we sometimes think. As a result, she never “plays down” to her audience. She always plays up—she takes her audience with her. By playing up to her audience, she has brought many people into the fold by exposing them to her music and making them realize that they understand what she’s doing. It’s an enormously valuable quality. NPR listeners are information junkies, and she fills the bill when the subject is jazz.

Marian has an extraordinary capacious intellect. She’s thoughtful, articulate, funny, and has a great appreciation—and is always a source for—the lush beauty you can hear in her playing.

Tommy Flanagan

Marian is a dedicated musician. She loves piano and has never shied away from any of the styles that have come along. She always keeps herself abreast of what’s happening, and she does it very well. It’s a dedication you don’t find in everyone, especially one lasting this long.

I was a guest on the first series of “Piano Jazz” and was impressed with the easy and open format, the excellent questions, and her determination to help her listeners learn about the music. We haven’t influenced each other’s playing, but we’re interested in how we approach the music through some of the same people we appreciate. She never tried to play like Tatum, and neither did I. But we were certainly influenced by him.

George Wein

With “Piano Jazz,” Marian has done more for the jazz piano than anyone else. It’s more than an education—it’s the glorification of a great instrument and the scope of what it means and what it can do as a solo instrument, a rhythm instrument, or as a band instrument. She’s also in a field where there’s great competition; there are a lot of trios. But her presentation, her choice of tunes, and her awareness of what might be attractive to her audience makes her very special. She is always prepared.

Truly, her main impact has been with her radio program. It educates listeners about the scope of jazz piano, which encompasses everything from Jelly Roll Morton right to the avant garde. There are so many voices in jazz piano. And Marian just grows all the time because she never stops listening to the other players out there. She’s also unselfish. If I call her to perform at a benefit, she’ll be there.

Sheri Hutchinson

I began working with Marian when I was with a series we were doing for NPR called American Popular Singers, which was a follow-up series to American Popular Songs with Alec Wilder. The producer was looking for another vehicle, and Marian was suggested. I met her in South Carolina and became involved with “Piano Jazz” as a technical consultant and associate producer in about 1982. It was originated by South Carolina Educational Radio. It has been a continual growth process for me, meeting all of these incredible stars and watching new talent develop. For the jazz community, it has brought people who are legends on the air to talk and play in a relaxed setting. Marian calls it “the best gig I ever had.” I really don’t think we’d be doing it this long if we didn’t enjoy it.

Marian is much the same person off the air. There’s nothing pretentious about her. She’s an inspiration to me—a woman in jazz who is learning, going through all the trials and tribulations, and coming out with a good attitude and always interested in learning more.

John Clayton

I know there’s a Marian McPartland who can be quite brash and female macho, but the public seldom sees it. And I don’t know how many musicians have seen it; there might be a few out there who’ve deserved it, but, luckily, I haven’t.

Playing with her is an experience. She has the quality of great musicians in that she’s a team player. She’ll have an idea of how she want to do something musically, but she’ll always ask what the others in the group think. She never forces anything. I love that team player attitude she has.

Billy Taylor

Marian always talks about the first time she met Jimmy. He was in the armed forces and he looked around and saw this chick who played piano. Jimmy really liked the way Marian looked, and he didn’t much care about how she played at that point. He even reportedly said that he a suspicion she didn’t play very well—and he told her so. But that impression quickly vaporized.

My message for Marian is probably one all of us in the music have; it’s for her to keep on keepin’ on. She’s done so many outstanding things, both as a musician and as a sensitive artist, that that’s the best we can say. Marian, keep on doing what you’re doing.

Originally published in October 1997

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