Thursday, August 22, 2013

Marian McPartland, Grand Dame of Jazz Piano, Passes Away at Age 95

Marian Turner was born in Windsor, England, on March 20, 1918. She played piano by ear from an early age, but at her mother’s demand unwillingly studied violin for five years until she was 14. About this time she discovered jazz via recordings and attempted to copy pianists whose playing she admired. She left the Guildhall School of Music, London, to join a four-piano vaudeville act, and later performed for British and American troops during World War II. She married American jazz cornetist, Jimmy McPartland in 1944 and the couple moved to the USA in April of 1946, but she never gave up her English citizenship.

Gradually overcoming the resistance of American jazz musicians to her nationality and sex, she established her own trio, which first played in New York at the Embers Club (1950) and later in lengthy residencies at Hickory House (1952-1960).

In the 1950s she contributed witty and perspective essays on jazz musicians to the Boston Globe, Detroit Free Press, and Down Beat, and reports on the American scene to the English periodical Melody Maker. Much later a collection of all her writings, All in Good Time, was published in 1987 and reissued in 2003.

In 1969 she established her own record company, Halcycon, and issued recordings into the late 1970s under her own leadership and in collaborations. In 1978 McPartland initiated what became a longstanding affiliation with Concord Records.

Jimmy McPartland and Marian were later divorced but they continued to work together occasionally. Marian took care of Jimmy in his years of terminal illness, and they remarried in 1991 shortly before his death.

She became internationally famous as host and producer of a syndicated NPR series, Piano Jazz, which began taping in October of 1978 and broadcasting in 1979 on NPR and featured Mary Lou Williams as the first guest. In this setting McPartland played in duos, or alternated unaccompanied solos with and interviewed, many of the leading pianists, singers and other instrumentalists and composers. This was one of the most popular jazz shows ever heard on radio for more than 30 years.

The bare bones accompaniment of bass and drums was always Ms. McPartland’s preferred format, bust she also appeared in concert with symphony orchestras, and in 1966 she recorded an album of her own compositions, Silent Pool, on which she was accompanied by a string orchestra.

In her last years, Ms. McPartland received several honors. She was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 2000, given a lifetime achievement Grammy Award in 2004, inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame 2007, and named a member of the Order of the British Empire in 2010.

She never stopped being creative and innovative in her playing style. Her playing grew denser and more complex with time , and even late in life she was experimenting with new harmonic ideas. “I’ve become a bit more reckless, maybe,"  she said in 1998. “I’m getting to the point where I can smash down a chord and not know what it’s going to be, and make it work.”

She left us a great recorded legacy. Among her best known compositions are, "In the Days of Our Love," "Twilight World," "So Many Things," "With You In Mind," and "Ambiance."

Ms. McPartland continued playing almost until the very end of her life, August 20, 2013. The song has ended but the melody lingers on.

A biography was published in 2012 titled Shall We Play That one together: the life and art of jazz piano legend Marian McPartland, written by Paul de Barros.

Please visit your local library to check out recordings and to learn more about this consummate jazz pianist and humanitarian who gave so much to the world of music, especially “Piano Jazz.”

Submitted by Russell Lee
Arts, Literature, & Sports
Central Library

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