Marian McPartland: Acclaimed jazz pianist and broadcaster


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The Independent Online

After beginning her career in British music halls, the pianist Marian McPartland left for the United States and became an unexpected jazz star. She forged a distinctive style, made scores of albums and composed music that was recorded by superstars.

But her greatest contribution to jazz came later in life, through her illuminating interviews and impromptu performances with musicians on her long-running NPR radio programme, Piano Jazz. She was 61 when the first episode aired in 1979. By the time she stepped away in 2011 she had won a Peabody Award for broadcasting and a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement. She also helped a generation learn about jazz through her searching interviews, conducted in her dulcet-toned, sometimes irreverent voice. "Marian McPartland has done more for jazz pianists than anyone in the entire world," the jazz impresario George Wein said in 1991.

As a British white woman she was an outsider in the American jazz scene, but she used that to her musical advantage, Paul de Barros wrote in his 2012 biography of McPartland, Shall We Play That One Together? "It allowed her to perceive jazz from the start as a high art," he wrote.

McPartland was a pioneering woman in jazz and often appeared at the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival at the Kennedy Center. A teenaged Diana Krall called her for career advice, and McPartland often gave air time on Piano Jazz to female performers, from Carmen McRae to Norah Jones. Yet she was reluctant to identify herself as a feminist. Replying to a question from Ms magazine co-founder Gloria Steinem at a college forum in 1974, McPartland shrugged off the idea that she had faced discrimination. "It always seemed like an advantage to be a woman," she said.

Born in Slough, she began playing piano by ear at the age of three, mimicking Chopin compositions her mother played, but she didn't take formal lessons until she was 16. She went to the Guildhall School in London at 17.

When her teachers heard her playing jazz, they warned her off it, and she left to join a travelling piano-quartet vaudeville act, taking the stage name of Marian Page. She began entertaining troops in Britain and in 1943 joined the USO, entertaining US soldiers near the European battlefront.

She worked alongside Fred Astaire and Dinah Shore, and in 1944 met a raffish cornet player from Chicago named Jimmy McPartland. After a quick courtship, they married in Germany in 1945 and settled in Chicago. She began working with her husband but before long became fascinated by the more challenging sounds of bebop. By the time she moved to New York in 1950, she was on her way to becoming one of the few musicians adept in both traditional and modern styles of jazz.

She led a trio in New York nightclubs, and was one of only two women included in Art Kane's renowned group portrait of jazz musicians on a Harlem street in 1958. For around seven years in the 1950s, McPartland's drummer was Joe Morello, with whom she had a long, intense affair. It was "an insane, besotted love," she wrote.

She underwent years of psychotherapy and in the late 1960s divorced Jimmy McPartland. She had began writing reviews and essays for DownBeat and other musical journals. She collected her writings in All in Good Time (1987 and 2005).

She composed songs that were recorded by Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee and Sarah Vaughan, among others, and established her own record label in the late 1960s. She also turned to broadcasting with a weekly show on WBAI-FM in New York. She played records, conducted interviews and discovered a rare talent for describing the elusive art of jazz, as well as for getting musicians to talk about their lives.

Those were the skills she used to make Piano Jazz so fresh and illuminating. She and a guest – there were more than 800, including Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, George Shearing and Wynton Marsalis – would play music and discussing the guest's life. She often improvised spontaneous musical portraits of her guests, who also included such jazz-loving stars as Steely Dan, Elvis Costello and Willie Nelson.

In the 1980s, she and McPartland decided that "our divorce was a failure," and they moved back in together on Long Island. They had no children. In 1991 they were remarried 46 years after their first wedding. Two weeks later, Jimmy died. The day after the funeral she was back on the road.

Away from her radio show, McPartland continued to tour and make new recordings into her nineties despite her arthritis.

Matt Schudel, Washington Post

Margaret Marian Turner, pianist, composer and broadcaster: born Slough 20 March 1918; married 1945 (marriage dissolved) and 1991 Jimmy McPartland; died Port Washington, New York 20 August 2013.