Fuse News: The Late Jazz Pianist Marian McPartland, A Powerhouse Musician and Educator

By Michael Ullman.

Marian McPartland

Pianist Marian McPartland — one of those rare jazz players who seemed only to get better with age.

Marian McPartland, who died on August 20 at the age of 95, was many things: a charming, gracious, and also tough-minded woman who was for over 30 years the radio host of her award-winning show Piano Jazz, an educator and mentor to many, an author, a business woman, and, lest we forget, a powerhouse musician.

McPartland was articulate, of course, and a virtuoso whose ballads (“New Orleans,” “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” “Here’s That Rainy Day,” and many others) tend to begin with a musing introduction that may have derived their harmonies from her studies of Delius but still manage to seem romantic and nervy and relevant all at the same time. She always played melodies beautifully, yet with a certain steely logic that is difficult to describe. She composed tunes, often peacefully impressionist ones such as “Silent Pool” and “Twilight World,” and “Ambiance.” Others, such as her friend Alec Wilder, composed music for her. Her knowledge of standards was almost unparalleled. She also had range. On In My Life (Concord), she follows Ornette Coleman’s “Ramblin” with “Singing the Blues,” the ’20s tune made famous by Frankie Trumbauer and Bix Beiderbecke. If Ellington was her first and most enduring musical hero, she also played pieces by Chick Corea (“Matrix”), Miles Davis (“Oleo”), and a dozen tunes by Wilder. She did so much so well: I marvel at the way she would end a solo, gracefully preparing a carpet for the bass player to step onto. It’s the height of professionalism and tact.

I interviewed Marian decades ago in her hotel room while ex-husband Jimmy (the cornetist who had replaced Bix Beiderbecke during the ’20s in the band the Wolverines) puttered around making tea. He hovered over Marian like a hen. (They divorced in the ’60s when Marian was seeing drummer Joe Morello and Jimmy was drinking excessively.) Every once in a while, Jimmy would say how amazed he was at Marian’s ability to grow as a musician, to absorb what was new. She even composed a couple of “free” jazz pieces. The pianist was less tender about herself. She told me, wrongly, that she wasn’t that good at uptempo tunes and criticized her performance of the night before at Boston’s Merry-Go-Round Room in Copley Square. The next night I sat with composer Alec Wilder as Marian played, and he raved about her creativity, her ability to come up with more harmonies and transitions than the ones he had supplied on his own pieces. There was a little trouble that evening. A small group in the audience talked throughout the performance. Marian, who typically turned towards listeners, glared at them with a look that would have frightened anyone—except this oblivious crew. When they left, she said aloud, “Thank God.”

She was born in Slough, England on March 20th, 1918, months after the conclusion of “the war to end all wars.” She found her husband, jazz cornetist Jimmy McPartland, when entertaining for the USO soon after D-Day in the next war. By then, in 1944, she had been a professional musician of sorts for six years. In 1938, she left the prestigious Guildhall School of Music where she was studying classical piano, composition, and theory, to join the vaudeville star Billy Mayerl’s group the Claviers, which featured four pianists who were playing tricked up instruments that could, it is said, sound like a harp or a banjo. She was bucking her teachers, her family, and, some would say, common sense to become interested in a kind of music that she had little experience with—jazz. She started to absorb what she heard on the recordings a boyfriend shared with her, discs that featured the performances of Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum, and Duke Ellington.

"Ambiance" -- a standout Marian McPartland album.

“Ambiance” — a standout Marian McPartland album.

Jimmy McPartland brought her to the United States and to the heart of the jazz world. The catch was that Jimmy played traditional Dixieland, and, given her rigorous classical training, Marian was ready for newer things. She soon tackled the harmonies and mannerisms of the bebop movement, though without its love of jaggedness and oblique melody. Her break came with an extended engagement at New York’s Hickory House, where she hired Joe Morello on drums to accompany her. She stayed at the club from 1952 to 1960, during which time she recorded repeatedly for Savoy and then for Capitol. She begins her 1956 record The Marian McPartland Trio with an energized version of “Stomping at the Savoy.”

Skilled as she was in the ’50s, Marian was one of those rare jazz players who seemed only to get better, especially after she started her own recording company, Halcyon. (Perhaps it’s because of her war experience, but her song titles reflect her preference for a quieter world.) The first Halcyon recording was the wonderful 1969 duet album Interplay with bassist Linc Milliman. McPartland always knew how to choose accompanists, so it is hard to choose the highlights among those recordings or the ones for Concord that followed, though I’d not want to be without Ambiance, Plays the Music of Alec Wilder, From This Moment On, or At the Festival.

She reached her widest audience, one surmises, through her long-running radio show, Piano Jazz. The format was simple. She would sit with a guest, whether Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines, Bill Evans, or Chick Corea, at one piano while she sat at a second, and they would talk. Then she would urge her guest to play a solo piece or two. Finally, McPartland would join in for an impromptu, two-piano duet. An endlessly curious, supremely accomplished musician and a masterful improviser, her relish for these duets was infectious. She died peacefully in her sleep with her family around her.

Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.

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