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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.

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