Marian McPartland, 'Piano Jazz' Host, Has Died

Aug 21, 2013
Originally published on August 21, 2013 4:23 pm

Marian McPartland, who gave the world an intimate, insider's perspective on one of the most elusive topics in music — jazz improvisation — died of natural causes Tuesday night at her home in Long Island, N.Y. She was 95.

For more than 40 years, she hosted Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz, an NPR program pairing conversation and duet performances that reached an audience of millions, connecting with jazz fans and the curious alike. She interviewed practically every major jazz musician of the post-WWII era.

McPartland's soft English accent wasn't the only thing that made her a good radio personality. She was an accomplished jazz pianist herself, which was readily evident on her program.

McPartland The Pianist

Marian McPartland, radio host, was at one time Margaret Marian Turner, piano student. She told NPR in 2005 that her interest in music started when she was a young girl, after she heard her mother play piano.

"From that moment on, I don't remember ever not playing piano, day and night, wherever I was," she said. "At my aunt's house, at kindergarten — wherever they had a piano, I played it. Of course, on the BBC they played all the hits from over here [in the U.S.]. They played them, I heard them and I learned them."

Young Marian Turner studied classical music, then went on to perform in vaudeville theaters across England. During WWII, she entertained troops, often jamming with American soldiers.

She married one of them: cornetist Jimmy McPartland. After the war, the couple made their way to the U.S. — first to Chicago, then to New York.

There, she tracked down one of her early idols, one of the few women in the bebop revolution, pianist Mary Lou Williams.

"A man might come into New York in 1951 and be kind of gunning for his competition," says Paul de Barros, McPartland's biographer. "Marian McPartland came to New York City and befriended Mary Lou Williams. She immediately tried to establish a kind of camaraderie with her, a kind of female strategy of 'we're in this together.' "

That "we're in this together" attitude was central to the success of her radio program and her career — not that she had an easy time of it at first. As McPartland struggled to make a name for herself in New York, one critic caustically suggested that she had three things going against her: She was British, she was white and she was a woman.

"I guess it wasn't that usual to see a woman musician playing in a group, although there were many, actually," McPartland told NPR. "But everybody seemed to think that this was pretty strange, maybe because I was British also. And someone would say, 'Oh, you play good for a girl,' or 'You sound just like a man.' At the time, I just took all those things as encouragement."

McPartland landed a gig in 1952 at The Hickory House, a noisy steakhouse on 52nd Street, the center of the city's jazz scene.

"Everybody came by," de Barros says. "I mean, she had the opportunity to meet everyone from Duke Ellington to Pee Wee Russell to Thelonious Monk. Jazz was really an underground community, and everybody hung out."

Conversations Like Jazz

McPartland continued to record and perform throughout the 1950s and into the '60s, but as rock 'n' roll took over, she began to lecture on college campuses. In the late '60s, she started spinning jazz records on a New York radio station where other pianists would drop by the studio unannounced, just to chat.

A casual hello became a regular program in April 1979, when McPartland and South Carolina ETV Radio launched Piano Jazz. Her first on-air guest was the late Billy Taylor, also a pianist and NPR jazz host.

"It seemed as if every opportunity that came her way in the past prepared her for being a radio host," de Barros says. "She had researched other people's styles, so she had questions that she wanted to ask. All of those skills were in place, and she was ready for the opportunity that came to her."

McPartland said the conversations themselves were very much like jazz, spontaneous and free-flowing.

"It's so easy to make it a conversation, and you don't know where it's going to lead," McPartland said. "The whole thing is so improvised, you really don't know where it's going to go."

Along the way, McPartland also became a mentor to many young pianists. Geri Allen, one of those pianists, says she hears something familiar to musicians when she listens to Piano Jazz.

"It's a very personal exchange that only happens to musicians on the bandstand," Allen says. "But to have it opened up to the fans, I think it helps to create even more of an understanding [of] what that whole experience of improvising is about."

McPartland was once asked how she did this. Her answer was simple: "You have to love what you do," she said.

That was perhaps Marian McPartland's greatest talent: She made Piano Jazz not about her, but about the musicians, the fans and our collective exploration of jazz. For more than 40 years, she reminded listeners every week that we're all in it together.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's spend the next few minutes remembering two of America's cultural giants.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

For over 40 years, Marian McPartland offered up an intimate, insider's perspective on one of the most elusive topics in music: jazz improvisation. As the host of the show Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz, she reached an audience of millions. She died last night at the age of 95. NPR's Felix Contreras has this appreciation.

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: Marian McPartland interviewed practically every major jazz musician of the post-World War Two era, from bebop pioneer Dizzy Gillespie...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

DIZZY GILLESPIE: The music that Charlie Parker created made guys change their way of doing things, you know.

CONTRERAS: ...to, of course, pianists, like Oscar Peterson.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

MARIAN MCPARTLAND, BYLINE: You know when I first met you? 1947.

OSCAR PETERSON: It was in Toronto, wasn't it?

MCPARTLAND: It was in Toronto.

PETERSON: That's right.

CONTRERAS: She also featured contemporary jazz musicians, like Chick Corea.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

CHICK COREA: Why don't you sit there and look at me and improvise a portrait of me? And then I'll do the same for you.

MCPARTLAND: All right.

CONTRERAS: And the vocalists. She loved singers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

MCPARTLAND: How about "Walking My Baby Back Home," Mr. Torme?

MEL TORME: That sounds like a musical cue.

MCPARTLAND: It's a musical cue.

CONTRERAS: Marian McPartland, radio host was at one time Margaret Marian Turner, piano student. She told NPR in 2005 that her interest in music started when she was a young girl, after hearing her mother play piano.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

MCPARTLAND: From that moment on, I don't remember ever not playing piano. Day and night, wherever I was, at my aunt's house, at kindergarten, or wherever they had a piano, I played it.

CONTRERAS: Young Marian Turner studied classical music, then went on to perform in vaudeville theaters across England. During the war, she entertained troops, often jamming with American soldiers. Then she married one of them, cornetist Jimmy McPartland. And after the war, the couple made their way to the U.S., first to Chicago, then on to New York. There, McPartland biographer Paul de Barros says, she tracked down one of her early idols, and one of the few women in the bebop revolution, pianist Mary Lou Williams.

PAUL DE BARROS: A man might come into New York in 1951 the way Marian did and be kind of gunning for his competition. Marian McPartland came to New York City and befriended Mary Lou Williams. She immediately tried to establish a kind of camaraderie with her, a kind of female strategy of, well, we're in this together.

CONTRERAS: That we're-all-in-this-together attitude was central to the success of her radio program and her career, but she didn't have an easy time of it at first. As she struggled to make a name for herself in New York, one critic caustically suggested Marian McPartland had three things going against her: she was British, she was white and she was a woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

MCPARTLAND: I guess it wasn't that usual to see a woman musician playing in a group, although there were many, actually. But everybody seemed to think this was pretty strange, maybe because I was British, also. And somebody would say, oh, you play good for a girl, or you sound just like a man. At that time, I just took everything as encouragement.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONTRERAS: McPartland landed a gig in 1952 at the Hickory House, a noisy steakhouse on 52nd Street, the center of the city's jazz scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DE BARROS: Everybody came by.

CONTRERAS: Biographer Paul de Barros.

DE BARROS: I mean, she had the opportunity to meet everyone from Duke Ellington to Pee Wee Russell to Thelonious Monk. And jazz was really an underground community, and everybody hung out.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONTRERAS: McPartland continued to record and perform throughout the 1950s, and into the '60s. But as rock and roll took over, she began to lecture on college campuses. Then in the late 1960s, she also started spinning jazz records on a New York radio station, where other pianists would drop by the studio unannounced just to chat with her. A casual hello became a program format in April 1979.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MCPARTLAND: Hi. I'm Marian McPartland.

CONTRERAS: McPartland and South Carolina Public Radio launched PIANO JAZZ. Her first on-air guest was the late Dr. Billy Taylor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

DR. BILLY TAYLOR: Well, Marian, thank you very much for inviting me. And it's always a pleasure to see and hear you, and it's even more fun to play with you.

CONTRERAS: It seemed as if every opportunity that came her way in the past prepared her for being a radio host. Paul de Barros.

DE BARROS: She had researched other people's styles, so she really had questions she wanted to ask.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

MCPARTLAND: Oh, well, Billy, it's a long time since I've heard that piece, and it's great to have you here.

TAYLOR: It's nice to be here...

CONTRERAS: McPartland said the conversations themselves were very much like jazz: spontaneous and free-flowing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

MCPARTLAND: I've never wanted it to sound like an interview, where you're really quizzing somebody. I mean, it's so easy to make it a conversation and - I mean, the whole thing is so improvised, that you really don't know where it's going to go.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

TAYLOR: ...go home and practice or something, and get it together, and it's too bad.

MCPARTLAND: It is. You know, I - this reminded me of something else, of a great composer...

CONTRERAS: Along the way, Marian McPartland became a mentor to many young pianists, including Geri Allen. She says that when she listens to PIANO JAZZ, she hears something very familiar to musicians.

GERI ALLEN: It's a very personal exchange that only happens between the musicians on the bandstand, but to kind of have that opened up to the fans, it helps to create even more of an understanding of what that whole experience of improvising is about.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONTRERAS: When Marian McPartland was once asked how she did this, her answer was simple.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

MCPARTLAND: You have to love what you do.

CONTRERAS: That was perhaps Marian McPartland's greatest talent: her love of making PIANO JAZZ not about her, but about the musicians, the fans and our collective exploration of jazz. And for over 40 years, her soft English accent reminded us every week that we're all in it together. Felix Contreras, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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