Jazz & Blues
8:27 am
Wed August 21, 2013

Celebrating the Life and Art of Marian McPartland

Update: Marian McPartland died of natural causes Tuesday night at her home in Long Island, N.Y. As a remembrance, we are rerunning this piece, which first ran in October 2012. 

A new book chronicles the life and illustrious career of jazz piano legend Marian McPartland. She's known for her role as host of Piano Jazz on NPR for more than three decades, but her fans have known little else about Marian McPartland. Until now.

Long before she was known to millions as the host of Piano Jazz, Marian McPartland was born Margaret Marian Turner in the London suburb of Slough in 1918. She was a shy girl who turned into a rebel when it came to her music. 

Her biographer, Seattle Times jazz critic and popular music editor Paul de Barros, says he’s was intrigued by McPartland when he first saw her perform in Seattle around 1982. 

“She played Roy Parnell’s old club down in Pioneer Square. And one of the things I remembered about that show was how everything she played was just very logical and comprehensible. Everything fit together. In some ways, it was almost too perfect. I remember I reviewed it for The Weekly and said ‘you know this is a person who really has a great sense of design and composition.’ I didn’t know at the time where it came from. I found out when I did this book," he said. 

His new book is called "Shall We Play That One Together?" In researching it, de Barros traveled to England and learned that Marian grew up in a strict household.

“She had a very conservative, middle-class, suburban upbringing. She was a very shy girl. She was told you’ve got to be prim and proper and speak well and have good grammar. But when she started playing music—she started playing violin— suddenly there’s this eruption. She’s giving a concert—I think she was like 9 or 10 years — and her regular accompanist didn’t show up, so she had a sub. And this woman screwed up the music. And this shy, little retiring girl started yelling at this adult woman, saying ‘You completely messed up my concert!’ So, there were these conflicting sides of her.”

It was through music that Marian found her voice,  and her passion. On the piano at a very young age, she discovered that she had quite an ear for music.  Here is a passage from the book:

“McPartland had been born with perfect pitch—the ability to pick out any note she heard and play it, the way other people might identify a color or shape.  As she played, she became enveloped in the sound, forgetting everything around her," she said. "After that day, the world of sound she found that afternoon would be her refuge, her solace, her companion—and eventually, her profession and lifelong obsession. At six years old, she had discovered the world she wanted to live in.”

Thanks to a teacher who encouraged her talent, Marian’s parents sent her to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, the equivalent of Julliard in New York. But she wanted to play jazz.

So, Marian responded to an ad to receive lessons from popular British musician and composer Billy Mayerl.  After hearing her play one time, he invited her on the road with his band.

From there, Marian worked in vaudeville, and eventually ended up with the USO, entertaining troops on the front lines in World War Two.  It was in France and Belgium, that she finally met real jazz musicians. She also met her future husband and fellow musician, Jimmy McPartland.  They were known as “the odd couple.”

“Jimmy was a kid from Chicago who grew up on the west side, poor. He was a tough guy. He loved to be the front man. He was a fast-talking, fun-loving, hard-drinking Chicago jazz man from the 1920s. Marian was this upper-middle-class girl who’d gone to the Stratford House School for Girls and was worried more about her penmanship than whether she could swing. So, yeah, they were just such opposite poles but they totally adored that opposite in the other," she said. 

Although never becoming an American, Marian moved to the U.S. with Jimmy. They formed a group. He taught her how to swing, and accompany other musicians, or “comp.” They eventually divorced, but remained friendly, and still performed together from time to time.

Marian worked hard, paid her dues, and eventually made a name for herself in the world of jazz. Enough to be included in the Esquire magazine photograph “A Great Day in Harlem,” taken in 1958 and published in  January 1959. It featured most of the famous jazz musicians of the day, including Dizzie Gillespie, Thelonius Monk and Count Basie.

But it wasn’t until 1979, at the age of 61, that Marian McPartland became a household name for millions of jazz lovers and public radio fans - through her insightful interviews and performances with fellow musicians, on Piano Jazz.

Paul de Barros says Piano Jazz endured for so long because it was unique.

“It’s an interview show, it’s journalism, and it’s collaborative music in real time. There’s never been anything like it," De Barros said. “She knows everyone in jazz from the 1920s to what happened last night. And she makes a point of knowing what’s going on. She’s a perennial student.  So she’s constantly out in New York scouting. ‘Who’s the new young player?’”

McPartland passed away Tuesday night at the age of 95. But de Barros says she’ll never be out of the minds and hearts of the millions of jazz fans that she entertained and educated for decades.

“I think Marian’s major importance to the world of jazz is as an advocate and a spokesperson. Getting jazz out there for people," he said. 

Paul de Barros’ book on Marian McPartland is called "Shall We Play That One Together? The Life and Art of Jazz Piano Legend Marian McPartland."