Marian McPartland Dies at 95

Beloved pianist and broadcaster hosted jazz greats on NPR's "Piano Jazz"

Marian McPartland image 0
Jeff Tamarkin

Marian McPartland

Marian McPartland, a pianist of ineffable swing and powerful grace, a groundbreaking figure in the history of female jazz musicians, and a beloved broadcaster whose syndicated NPR program, Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz, was a cornerstone of jazz broadcasting since 1978, died Tuesday night at her home in Port Washington, N.Y., according to NPR. She was 95.

A formidable composer and pianist in her own right, the British-born McPartland was an NEA Jazz Master and the recipient of numerous awards, among them a Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Award, a Grammy Trustees Award from NARAS and an ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award. She received honorary degrees from at least nine colleges and universities. McPartland was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2007 and was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2010.

Born Margaret Marian Turner on March 20, 1918, she began playing piano at 3 and studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, but in 1938 she left the school to join a four-piano touring act, using the stage name Marian Page. She met the Chicago-based cornetist Jimmy McPartland in 1944 while performing at a USO show in Belgium, and following their 1945 marriage the couple moved to the United States, settling first in Chicago and then, in 1949, in New York City. There, Marian formed a trio that held a regular engagement at the city’s Hickory House jazz club from 1952-1960. She later performed regularly at New York’s famed Carlyle Hotel. (Jimmy McPartland died in 1991.)

In 1958, Marian McPartland was among the 57 musicians photographed by Art Kane for the now-iconic portrait “A Great Day in Harlem.”

McPartland launched her recording career on the Savoy label in 1951 with Jazz at Storyville. She subsequently recorded more than 50 albums for Capitol, her own Halcyon label, Jazz Alliance, Concord Jazz and other companies. In a review of her 2008 Twilight World album, JazzTimes called McPartland “a phenomenon, a classic stylist whose undiminished invention, sure technique and sophistication are cornerstones of the postwar jazz universe,” and stated that she “demonstrates a level of elegance that may elude fashion at times, but never truly goes out of style.”

McPartland’s radio career began in 1964 with a weekly show on WBAI-FM on which she played recordings and interviewed guest jazz artists. She maintained that format when NPR premiered Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz in 1978. During the program’s run, which lasted until 2010, McPartland interviewed and/or accompanied hundreds of jazz artists, including singers, guitarists, other pianists and other musicians. Although she specialized in standards, McPartland proved over the years to be highly adaptive and a skilled improviser. Piano Jazz was NPR’s longest-running cultural program.

McPartland published a collection of essays, You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby, in 1975. In 2007, in South Carolina, she performed the premiere of her symphonic work, “A Portrait of Rachel Carson,” inspired by the author’s 1962 environmental book Silent Spring. A documentary film, In Good Time, the Piano Jazz of Marian McPartland, premiered in 2011. It includes praise from Dr. Billy Taylor, Elvis Costello, Dave Brubeck, Diana Krall, Bill Frisell, Nnenna Freelon, Renee Rosnes, Dick Hyman and others.