Marian McPartland will forever be celebrated as one of the all-time great jazz pianists. She was also a world ambassador for the arts, a pioneering force for women in jazz and, being British, she helped make it clear that an original voice in this music could come from anywhere, both culturally and geographically. She opened so many doors just by being herself.
I remember the first time I heard Marian. I was about 12 years old and had found a cassette in my parents’ collection. The beautiful harmony, the touch, the imagination, the poise and those beautiful tunes! I listened to it over and over again and thought, “Boy, I’d like to play like that someday.”
And, of course, there’s her legacy in radio. Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz was and is a priceless gift to world culture. Together with Shari Hutchinson, the show’s producer, Marian created an environment in which the audience felt privileged to listen in on an insider’s view of the art of jazz improvisation. The show lasted for over 40 years and had hundreds of guests. Just a handful of the giants who appeared on her show includes Teddy Wilson, Tommy Flanagan, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Mary Lou Williams, Chick Corea and Eubie Blake. Marian later expanded the format of the show to include other instrumentalists like Dizzy Gillespie, Gerry Mulligan and Ray Brown. She also championed many younger and lesser-known artists throughout the seasons.
“A Delicate Balance” is the title of one of Marian’s most beautiful compositions and is an apt description of the atmosphere she created as a host. She had the excitement and wonder of a child, along with the wisdom that comes from experience. She was humble, genuine and incredibly sharp, and she could be hilariously funny. Marian must have known over 1,000 tunes, from the early 1900s up through the present. She had the daring to play a song off the top of her head, in any key, and she loved challenging herself and her guests with extemporaneous freeform playing. Hers was a truly open musical mind, fueled by the desire to learn something new.
I had the good fortune of being her guest many times on Piano Jazz-twice by myself, once with my mother, singer Sandy Stewart, and once with my wife, pianist Renee Rosnes. (We had three pianos in the studio for that show!) I also had the privilege of being her guest host for three episodes, talking to Hank Jones, Cedar Walton and Randy Brecker. Being on the other side gave me even more respect for Marian’s gift for making her guests feel comfortable. This summer I’ll be presenting a concert in tribute to Marian McPartland at the Kaufman Concert Hall at New York’s 92nd Street Y. My guests will be the piano genius Dick Hyman and the brilliant young pianist Christian Sands. We’ll engage in piano solos, duets and conversation, continuing the legacy of Piano Jazz.
Renee and I were both present at the New York ceremony in 2010 when Marian received the Order of the British Empire. To see her honored in that way was a very special moment. She was an irreplaceable spirit, an international star, a singular artist and an elegant human being. To have known her is one of the great blessings in my life.