August 22, 2013

Marian McPartland, 1918-2013

Marian McPartland and Monk Rowe
Photo by Val DeVisser

Today I am reflecting on the life and career of Marian McPartland, who passed away on August 20, at the age of 95. The accolades and tributes are pouring in, and almost all of them include the qualifier that Marian was one of the most accomplished of all women jazz musicians. In fact, if we want to pay proper tribute to her, it would be more appropriate to say that Marian McPartland was a wonderful jazz pianist, educator, radio personality, and a classy individual. While it is difficult to not feel melancholy at the passing of another legend, I keep reminding myself that Marian defied her parents’ wishes for her to lead a proper British life; she waded onto the beach at Normandy, forged a career as a major jazz artist, created the longest running NPR series, and touched the lives of countless fans and fellow musicians. This is a cause for celebration.

Marian emigrated from the U.K. to the U.S. in 1946, a time when a woman jazz instrumentalist was a rarity, and an Englishwoman jazz musician even more so. I think she enjoyed exceeding peoples’ expectations, and the fact that she was accorded a different response in the press and in the jazz community in general was less bothersome to her than most people think. She touched upon this in our interview, which was conducted in April of 1997 before a concert in Utica, NY.

MM:    I don’t think it was ever an uphill struggle for me, because I sort of had my indoctrination in working with Jimmy, and boy Jimmy was so supportive and proud of me. And so when I started at The Embers as a trio — Ed and Don, they couldn’t be nicer. I mean very seldom did I have a bad experience. The only problem would be like I remember the first review I had from Leonard Feather: “she has three strikes against her: she’s English, white and a woman.” And it didn’t bother me that much. I don’t remember being too upset about that. And if there were things it’d probably be from the audience like “oh you play good for a girl,” or “you sound just like a man.” I mean you don’t hear those things anymore. And I mean there were a lot of women on the scene: Mary Lou Williams, Barbara Carroll, people I’d heard before I got there — Hazel Scott, Lil Harden. I never felt that the women were in such bad shape I guess. They went ahead and they had consciousness raising and I remember talking to Barbara about this, and she said “well I didn’t know it was a thing, we’ve just been playing and doing our thing right along.” And I never had to feel that things were tough. I never did.
MR:    I think it’s often the case when the people that are doing it, aren’t aware that there’s a real problem. It’s the people that are observing from outside, you know, think there’s a problem that needs to be dealt with.
MM:    Well and there were some women who were trying to get gigs. Like somebody I recently had on “Piano Jazz” was a bass player named Coline Ray, was really wonderful, and she said years ago she would get a call for a gig and as soon as the person knew it was a girl, he’d hang up. But I don’t think it was all that prevalent, truthfully. There’s probably still an air of male chauvinism there. But I don’t care. I still like things like having the door opened for me and I don’t have trouble with political correctness. If the bass player wants to put his arm around me, that’s okay.
The Jimmy she refers to is of course cornetist Jimmy McPartland. In a story that seems like a fairy tale, Marian and Jimmy met and connected in a turbulent time. She spoke about her involvement in WW II and the direction her life took afterwards:
MR:    Can I take you back to when you met Jimmy and, it must have been quite an experience to be a young lady in World War II, you started with the British version of USO, is that right?
MM:    Yes.
MR:    Did you have a contract with them? Was it a volunteer thing, or was it a real job?
MM:    Oh I think we had a contract, it was a real job. In fact at that time I had the choice of either being dropped into the woman’s Army, or going into some kind of entertainment, so naturally I decided I would do that immediately, I didn’t have to think about it at all. So the pay was pretty decent, and we played all over the country. Accommodations and travel were not always the best because there was a war on. And there would be bombs dropping once in a while. But then I switched and went with regular Merchant USO. Somebody said “oh you ought to join USO, the pay is better and you’ll meet all these wonderful American guys” stuff like that, and I though oooh. So that’s what I did. And then we worked, it would be a regular show, like with a comedian or a singer or dancer, they had a guitar player and then I did the piano player thing for the whole show. So then it got to be when they were going to have the invasion and after the invasion, they were sounding people who wanted to go over to France and of course I wanted to go and did go with the first group which was about a month after the invasion. And we went over in a boat and we had helmets and combat boots and everything the GI’s had except the guns. You know I felt like MacArthur wading ashore onto Omaha Beach and straggling up the beach and we knew how to put up pup tents. But we never had to because somebody always did that for us. I should have kept a diary. And we went through all of these miserably bombed and strafed areas that were just a mass of rubble, and we finally arrived in Belgium in a rest area, and it was called Eupen, and they had a big band and they had all kinds of stuff going on and the area shows would come there to rest, and they had an Officer’s Club, and that’s where I met Jimmy. One of the people, Willy Shaw, was a comedian from Chicago, knew Jimmy, and said “we can’t have this man out there being in combat, we’ve got to get him into Special Service,” so that’s what they did. So that’s how I met Jimmy, because he then became a member of this little band. But first they had a big party for him, all the band members and people are saying “Jimmy McPartland’s coming, Jimmy McPartland’s coming,” and I’m going “who?” I’d heard of Bud Freeman and Sidney Bechet, but I hadn’t heard of Jimmy yet. And they had a party in this tent and they were going to have a jam session, and Jimmy always told me afterwards, “oh I saw you across the tent and I knew you wanted to play and I said to myself ‘oh a woman musician, she wants to play and I know she’s going to be terrible,’ and you were,” he says. But I really wasn’t terrible I think I just didn’t know how to play with a big band at that point.
MR:    So you guys hit it off pretty quickly?
MM:    Yes we did. And I guess going out every day early, out to the carrier to entertain the troops and going — maybe had to perform on a flatbed truck or they’d build a stage out of boards or it would be raining and they’d put a top over the piano and stuff like that. It wasn’t exactly the greatest. But they just loved it, and then they would wine and dine us and oh, it was something. So you know there we were, so I think it was a case of propinquity — that’s a good word — like we were there and so it just followed on that we would get together. And of course I admired Jimmy’s playing and he started to tell me that he liked my harmony so one thing led to another.
MR:    From a logistical standpoint it must have been interesting seeing what kind of instrument you were going to deal with every day — what kind of piano were they going to find for me?
MM:    Well it’s funny because I thought it was going to be terrible, in fact one of the prerequisites of the job was that you would learn to play accordion in case there were no pianos. Oh, boy, I’ll never live this down. But I never had to actually play the accordion because they had these wonderful little like a G.I. piano which was not quite a full keyboard, like a small upright, painted gray, Army style. And I always got to play on one of those. I never had a problem. And then when we were in Eupen, Jimmy went out to somebody’s house, some people that had been branded as traitors, and removed the piano and put it on a truck and brought it over to the theater for me, and this was like “oh, you went out and got a piano for me, oh.”
MR:    What a nice gesture.
MM:    So that sort of fixed the deal right there. So we got married over there in Aachen, Germany.
Her music, life and career prospered in the United States, first with the assistance of her husband Jimmy and his musical connections, and soon after as a leader of her own trio.
My association with Marian dates back to 1975. For a few years I taught music in Verona, NY, a rural school district outside Utica. I was flabbergasted one day to find a note in my mailbox, distributed to all the teachers, about an upcoming assembly for the students featuring pianist Marian McPartland. I specifically remember saying to the nearest teacher, “Marian McPartland is coming to VVS!?” Her response was “who is Marian McPartland?” As it turned out, our principal was significantly hipper than we had realized. He was a jazz fan and when he saw Marian’s name on the list of performing artists sponsored by our local BOCES, he jumped at the opportunity. I will never forget Marian performing before an auditorium full of middle and high school students. She handled it well, and in recognition of the then-current pop music, included Stevie Wonder’s “You are the Sunshine of my Life” in her performance. In what was a first for me, I approached her afterwards and wondered if she might return during the school year to perform as a guest with my newly-formed high school jazz ensemble. She did, and the concert was a great success. Marian exuded class and was attuned to the level and needs of the students on stage. In reflecting on her visit I am reminded that the life of a musician, no matter where they are in the hierarchy of the jazz community, is never an easy one. Marian would have been 54 at the time of this visit, at the height of her career, yet she was playing a rural high school assembly in Central New York, and gladly doing so. Her only complaint was that the Verona Motel had no phones in the rooms.
Our paths crossed a number of times after that, most significantly in 1997. By that time I had been at Hamilton for three years and was in the midst of our jazz oral history project. She brought her trio to a nearby Utica venue for a concert, and soon after received an honorary degree from the college, one of 13 jazz musicians so honored to date. The last time I saw Marian perform was in Toronto at the 2003 IAJE conference. Marian would have been 85 at the time, and was slowed by age and arthritis. When I saw her hands before the concert I could not imagine that she was about to go on stage with a piano trio. But like many veteran musicians, Marian learned how to compensate and her stage presence, dry wit, knack for creating perfect set lists, and her always-keen harmonic sense enabled her to enthrall a standing-room-only audience.
Most jazz fans are familiar with the photo called “A Great Day in Harlem” by Art Kane, taken in 1958. Marian was one of three women among the 57 jazz artists pictured that day. She stood next to Mary Lou Williams, one of her musical heroes, and when a restaging of the picture was conducted in 1997, Marian was one of the nine remaining musicians. The updated 1997 photo drew a considerably large jazz contingent and Marian can be spotted next to the late Dave Brubeck, a mutual admiration society. I stumbled across this audio YouTube today of Dave and Marian playing “Take Five” together.
Her personality and spot-on memory enabled her to make the NPR program “Piano Jazz” a long running hit. For over three decades Marian interviewed and performed with a long list of both veteran and up and coming musicians. Her willingness to take risks and her encyclopedic knowledge of the history of jazz piano enabled her to perform with everyone from Eubie Blake to Cecil Taylor, and with young jazz artists of today. When it came time for Marian to step aside, she chose fellow pianist Jon Weber to become her replacement. When I interviewed Jon at Hamilton College in June of 2012, he was understandably honored to fill the role:
JW:    I am humbled beyond belief that Marian has chosen me to follow her concept into the next generation. I’m very, very happy about it. She started something in 1978 from scratch. There were no jazz radio programs like it. There wasn’t one where you brought on a guest, another musician, and they played together, and they said “oh remember that time at the Hickory House” “remember at the Palladium when the Duke was there, yeah, and Tito Puente walked in and Monk was there.” They have these stories, these jazz stories, that sort of humanize jazz musicians and in a little bit take away from the mystique and make them, oh jazz musicians aren’t so brooding and indecipherable as I had thought, they’re just regular people. And yes, to follow Marian’s concept is an honor that I am humbled beyond belief. I try to research everything about every guest that I have on the show. Because I want to know something, I want to ask something if I possibly can that hasn’t been asked before. Marian does this naturally. Marian could just listen to someone’s records, in those days the albums and probably iron clothes and make a turkey and, you know, write a chart. And then the next day go on the show and say “oh yes on the eighth album on the second side that thing you did in your solo, I got a kick out of it.” She remembers everything.
Marian had an adventurous musical spirit, and during our pre-concert interview in Utica I asked her about playing free jazz, and mentioned one of her more harmonically challenging records called “Ambience.”
MM:    Michael Moore had written several of those tunes that were on “Ambiance” and then I had written “Ambiance” and there was a couple of other things. But we had this very freestyle drummer too, Jimmy Madison. He was on most the tracks, and Billy Hart was on the rest of it. And boy if I could just set up that same thing again I probably would get into that same bag. You’re making me think I should do some more. I mean I can and I do, like every time on “Piano Jazz” if the guest wants to do it, we’ll do at least one free piece. Some of them turn out better than others. It’s always a kick doing it.
MR:    Well there’s always tonight.
MM:    Yeah, that’s true.
Two hours later, at the halfway point in her concert she said to the audience, “well my friend Monk Rowe challenged me to play something free tonight, so here we go,” and they launched into an extemporaneous exploration. I don’t have much of an ego, but I will say that I was proud to have had Marian call me her friend.
Marian so inspired me as an interviewee that I tried to capture her personality in this song called “Queen’s Waltz.”


  1. I'll be forever grateful that you asked her to let the VVS Jazz Ensemble back her, and that she agreed. Incredible experience for me to have had as a 12-year old (!).

    I worked her merchandise table in the lobby, and she paid me with an autographed LP (which I of course still have...)

  2. Thanks Brett for filling in a few blanks in my memory, I don't recall the merchandise table nor the fact that you were 12! I do recall that there were a few skilled players in important seats, like yourself, that convinced me that the idea of inviting her back was not out of reach.

    A wonderful memory, I have my own autographed LPs.

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