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Framing Marian McPartland

Tom Reney blogs about In Good Time, a new documentary on the pianist and radio host

Marian McPartland, Mary Lou Williams and Thelonious Monk at "A Great Day in Harlem" gathering for Esquire magazine, New York City, 1958

Duke Ellington’s greatest asset may have been his skill as a listener. He famously recruited a wide array of musicians of varying talent levels and coaxed from them the individual sounds that he valued as theirs alone, then stylized them to his own ends as a composer and bandleader. Ellingtonians were as tight-lipped as the Maestro about his methods, so we know very little about what Duke actually said to inspire Johnny Hodges and Lawrence Brown and Paul Gonsalves. But it’s long been known that he offered Marian McPartland an incisive appraisal of her piano playing when he first heard her in the early ’50’s at the Hickory House, Ellington’s favorite New York steakhouse. “My, you play so many notes,” was Duke’s brief assessment, and as McPartland acknowledges in the documentary In Good Time: The Piano Jazz of Marian McPartland, he was right.

To the pianist’s credit, she took Ellington’s “charming” advice and developed a manner of keyboard playing that takes its time and breathes in all the right places. The same can be said for the film that producer/director Huey has created about the 94-year-old native of Windsor, England. The documentary runs 86 minutes, which gives it enough time to convey something of the sweep of McPartland’s life from her girlhood in a “conservative, upper-middle-class” home to her decade-long engagement at the Hickory and the 33 years she spent as host of NPR’s Piano Jazz. As Huey explained last night at Amherst Cinema, much of the film was shot during production segments of Piano Jazz, so the sound is exceptionally clear and resonant.

McPartland was a child prodigy, but she met strong parental objections over her interest in a career in music. In the face of her mother’s charge that she was “pigheaded” and other “harassments” that took McPartland years to “grow out of,” she persevered, first playing the English Music Hall circuit, then with the outbreak of World War II, volunteering for ENSA, the English equivalent of the USO. By 1944, as she told Whitney Balliett for his New Yorker profile of her, she “switched to the USO which paid better and which meant working with the Americans! Boy, the Americans!”

One of “the Americans!” was trumpeter Jimmy McPartland, a Chicago-bred live wire who succeeded Bix Beiderbecke in the Wolverine Orchestra in 1927, and went on to a long career playing traditional jazz at Eddie Condon’s and the Metropole in New York. (Replacing Bix, perhaps the most prestigious job for a white jazz trumpeter in the ’20’s, isn’t mentioned in the film, but we do learn that Jimmy listened to his own recording Shades of Bix on his deathbed.) Snapshots and home movies give vivid evidence of the outsized McPartland wowing the introverted Margaret Marian Turner as they played for the troops in Belgium and France. As Jimmy told Whitney Balliett, “She tried to act real GI, but I could see she was a fine, well-bred person and not a juvenile delinquent like me.”

After a whirlwind six-week courtship on the front lines, they married with no way of notifying her family of the wedding. But once she brought him home, McPartland charmed her parents by making her mother laugh and taking her father to the movies.

Moving to Chicago after the war, Marian followed Jimmy for several years from gig to gig and bender to bender before she made her own way to New York in the early ’50’s and became established with her trio, a group that eventually coalesced around bassist Bill Crow and drummer Joe Morello. Still, the family back home was disapproving, and she told Balliett that her benighted maternal uncle, Sir Cyril, “came over when I was working at the Hickory House and [was] shocked and mystified by the whole scene. Uncle Cyril took me aside between sets at the club and said, ‘Does your father know what you’re doing’?”

Little of these dilemmas, whether familial or marital, is explored in Huey’s documentary. There are slight hints, but it’s nearly over before viewers learn that the McPartlands divorced in the ’60’s, and it’s only Balliett’s profile that mentions the six years that Marian spent seeing a psychiatrist who “indirectly precipitated a lot of things.” The end of the marriage apparently motivated Jimmy to quit drinking, and Marian became “twice as productive.” They eventually drifted back together again as the best of friends, for as Jimmy says in the film, “the divorce was a failure.”

Whatever In Good Time fails to convey of the stormier elements of Marian’s life, it makes up for with her music, her stiff-upper-lip spunk, and the testimonials of numerous eloquent and sympathetic musicians, most of which carry a powerful emotional assertion of McPartland’s character and achievements. Chief among these is vocalist Nnenna Freelon, who says that while she’s sure Marian survived many undisclosed hard knocks as a female musician, she’s a model of a woman who, “like a river,” flows around obstacles and keeps on moving. Freelon is also seen with McPartland at Tanglewood performing an “Amazing Grace” that’s as moving as any I’ve heard. Its placement in the film, like that of most of the extensive music clips, is perfectly timed.

Jeremy Pelt hails McPartland as one of the living masters whom young musicians need to know; Renee Rosnes elicits a few wisecracks from the lady, who notwithstanding her background and present status as a member of the Order of the British Empire, is capable of swearing like a “docker.” Diana Krall tells a sweet story about phoning Marian out of the blue when she was an unknown in her teens, and getting a return call. The only miscast participant is Krall’s husband Elvis Costello, who carries on a lively conversation with his fellow British subject, but who belies the standards of jazz with a horribly off-pitch and over-dramatized effort at singing “Our Love Is Here to Stay.” He should really stick to “Watching the Detectives.” His presence here and in other jazz settings like the Mingus Orchestra, leaves me with an unsettling feeling that jazz is desperate for whatever sense of validation pop stars like Costello might confer on it. He must add luster to the marketing of a film like this, but his singing should have been left on the cutting room floor. (Lest you think I’m a jazz snob, let me assure you that I like Costello’s Attractions material, have paid long green to see him in concert, and number “Peace, Love and Understanding” among my all-time favorite rock tunes.)

Anyone familiar with Piano Jazz knows how truly gifted McPartland is as an improviser. But seeing her on camera with Dave Brubeck, Mulgrew Miller, Rosnes and school kids galore adds a new level of appreciation to this aspect of her art. Perhaps it was her outsider status as an Englishwoman striving for mastery of the American idiom that made her a quick study of other players, but her skill at distilling the essence of another’s style and creating a spontaneous piece that captures them so fully strikes me as an aspect of genius. I’d never felt quite so profoundly about Marian until I saw In Good Time, and I trust you will too.

Originally Published