Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Marian McPartland -- Happy 90th Birthday

Jazz pianist Marian McPartland, born 3/20/1918, celebrated her 90th birthday at New York's Lincoln Center the evening of the 19th. Variety's Sunday, March 23rd issue noted in Robert L. Daniels' review of the celebration:

"The grand doyenne of the keyboard still plays boldly assured piano. Her approach resonates with a rare, studied blend of elegance and subtlety that must be the envy of younger musicians."

Excerpts of the event include this National Public Radio link to a slide show; also you can listen to McPartland performances as Norah Jones sings "Yesterdays," jazz violinist Regina Carter's rendition of "Georgia On My Mind." This NPR account then describes (Wynton) "Marsalis and the Grand Dame of Jazz sparred in a conversational improvisation. The trumpeter strolled the stage, bouncing notes off McPartland's piano strings." Highlights of the birthday celebration performances will be featured later on her jazz radio program.

I first became aware of Marian McPartland's music in the early 1960s from a man (he later became my husband) whose avocation was as a professional jazz musician. Most of the jazz musicians were male with few females other than vocalists or, "girl singers" as they were generally called. When he and his musician friends assessed the talents of any local female jazz musicians, some of the discussions I heard left me wondering if perhaps there might be a gender bias. There were two or three women that when named were said to be "pretty good...for a girl."

There was one female jazz pianist, Marian McPartland, who came to town fairly often whose piano playing elicited only admiration from all the musicians. Her talents crossed whatever gender barrier there might have been. In an effort to understand what it was about how she played that placed her in a talent category far superior to any other female jazz musician, I repeatedly tried to get an explanation from my husband as to what it was about her playing that made her better. His explanation always came down to "She plays like a man." He's no longer here to combat my teasing about his possible sexism or to enjoy her earthly music, but maybe some heavenly notes find their way to him. I'll content myself with continuing to enjoy her music as I always have since I first heard her play.

An interesting interview by Gene Seymour with McPartland is featured in the Salt Lake Tribune in which she reveals having fractured her pelvis this past Christmas holiday season. That event may have slowed her a bit, but she's back at the keyboard as her birthday celebration photo attests. She's also continuing with her radio show.

Marian McPartland's National Public Radio, Piano Jazz is the longest-running national performance program on public radio and was called "an oasis of intelligence and grace and probably the best hour of jazz on the airwaves" by The Washington Post. She features a combination of conversation and music with a variety of performers from jazz legends to newer artists. A schedule for her program's weekly broadcast in all areas can be easily accessed at the NPR link by providing your location.

Currently, you can listen to the March 21st program featuring her husband, cornetist Jimmy McPartland, to whom she attributes much of her music success. He was in the Army, Marian was from England and they met in Belgium entertaining World War II troups. They came to the U.S.A. in 1946, divorced in 1970, remained good friends, re-married a few weeks before his death from lung cancer in 1991 Wikipedia reports.

A Ted Kurkland Associates biography of Marian McPartland contains detailed information noting that she was

"...born in a small English village near Windsor Castle.." but went on to "...become one of the leading proponents of America’s Great Musical Idiom..." jazz. She's a composer, writer "...helped to develop and participated in a jazz education program for Washington, D.C. schoolchildren that ended up becoming a model for similar endeavors around the country." She "...supplied Down Beat with some concert reviews back in 1949, took up the pen occasionally to write witty and prescient appreciations and remembrance-filled essays for different magazines, which were collected in a volume titled All in Good Time in 1987. The book was reissued by the University of Illinois Press in February 2003 as Marian McPartland’s Jazz World with new postscripts from the author.

Marian McPartland has a new album, "Twilight World," a mixture of "...familiar standards and original material..." released March 11, 2008. Her Concord label notes "Twenty-one albums in 29 years at one label is a feat unto itself ..." They write "Pianist and frequent Piano Jazz guest Bill Charlap has said that, "MM is a harmonic genius. Her singular musical voice encompasses the past, present and future of jazz." Her facile touch is present throughout this sumptuous ballad-centric program."

She says, ""I'm so happy to have done this album...It's nice to have something you're this happy with at this stage of life."

I'm just happy that at 90 years of age she's still playing and recording music, continuing her weekly radio show -- truly a "...musical voice encompassing the past, present and future of jazz," as Charlap said.


  1. I too have great memories of listening to Marian McPartland and taking her into my musical vocabulary very early on. The musical tributes to her on NPR for her birthday celebration are wonderful.

  2. I had never heard of her... And love jazz. How could I not know of her, I wonder?

  3. Until the local NPR station changed their schedule and my situation changed, I listened to Piano Jazz every airing. There was one memorable show when her guest was Herbie Hancock. They talked and laughed and played their pianos side-by-side and it was like being transported to a planet of dreams. She is truly one of the greats and has probably done more to promote jazz than any of the bigger more famous names.

  4. I have to confess that I don't know much about Marian....and it looks like she is a person well worth knowing. Happy Birthday Marian...90 years young.

  5. I am a longtime Marian McPartland admirer. I missed the NPR program but am pleased to have her recordings in my CD collection. Sad to say I don't listen to my local NPR stations very often in NJ and Florida. As a crotchety old guy who wants to listen to music on the radio, I find too much talk and not enough music on NPR. Fortunately, good-music stations still exist in NJ and in neighboring NYC. In Florida, I'm dependent on my own CD collection.

  6. Virginia, Winston & Motart: Glad to see you jazz music admirers enjoy MM's music as I do. She's had some really good musicians on her NPR show. I just bought a CD of her show with Bill Evans (such a fantastic piano player)from his appearance a number of years ago.

    MotherPie & Joy: Good that you're aware now of MM's musical talents. I'm always pleased, too, to hear about musicians new to me, then wonder why I didn't know about them before. Some just have a much higher profile than others, I think.