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Book Review: Shall We Play That One Together?

Lee Mergner reviews Paul De Barros' biography of Marian McPartland

In this biography of renowned pianist and radio host Marian McPartland, the Seattle-based jazz writer Paul de Barros takes on the challenging assignment of writing about a living subject-one whose professional life has been well-covered in the media since her arrival in the U.S. in 1946. A biography without revelation might just as well be a lengthy Wikipedia entry. But in this case, the author benefitted from work done by not one but two writers whose books were never finished. De Barros also had access to the extensive diaries, correspondences and repeated attempts at autobiography from McPartland herself.

As the host of the beloved Piano Jazz program syndicated on public radio, McPartland has a story ripe for hagiography. Yet de Barros portrays McPartland in all her strengths and weaknesses. The jazz world is very familiar with the former: her talents as a pianist, her championing of fellow artists, her commitment to jazz education, her dry wit and her sheer longevity. But many jazz fans will be surprised to learn that McPartland can and will curse like a sailor, or that she has suffered from bouts of depression, or that her professional ambition has occasionally supplanted her personal relationships. (Still, the private McPartland is not all demons and hard edges, and De Barros repeatedly illustrates her generosity.)

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