Late, great jazz pianist Marian McPartland: An appreciation

Her genial public nature long concealed a stark personal tragedy. Photo: Marian McPartland/AP file

WASHINGTON, September 12, 2013 – Less than a month ago, on August 20, 2013, legendary English-born jazz pianist and composer Marian McPartland passed away quietly at her Long Island home in Port Washington, New York. Her death, at the age of 95, was reportedly due to natural causes. Long known as a pioneering female jazz artist in a field still largely dominated by men, McPartland also blossomed as a popular radio personality in the second half of her life, hosting NPR’s highly regarded program “Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz” from 1978 until 2011.

In 1997, this writer had the opportunity to interview McPartland for “The Washington Times” on the occasion of her special performance before the U.S. Supreme court in the nation’s capital. She and her jazz ensemble had come here at the invitation of then-Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, a longtime fan and admirer. 

In this March 19, 2008 photo, Marian McPartland smiles while playing the piano during a celebration of her 90th birthday in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

McPartland’s whirlwind DC tour was typical of the energetic life she continued to enjoy at a time when most performing artists have already hung up their spikes. During our time together, McPartland put on her marketing hat to promote her then-current CD, “Silent Pool,” a collection of original compositions performed with the unusual backdrop of a string ensemble and conducted by pianist and arranger Alan Broadbent. “I’m hoping people will like it. I think Alan did a wonderful job” arranging it, she said. 

The songs on that 1997 CD range from “Twilight World,” one of her better known 1950s-era compositions, to “Melancholy Mood,” a track inspired by a little tune she said was inspired by the man she still referred to as her “late husband”—noted cornetist, Jimmy McPartland—who died in 1991. He would play it when he was warming up, and “I thought it would make a nice tune,” she said.

Marian McPartland was born Margaret Marian Turner in Windsor, England, a country that also that produced the great jazz pianist George Shearing.  

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In answer to an inquiry as to her precise age during our 1997 interview, she briefly dropped her accustomed public cool and responded with considerable exasperation. “I don’t know why all you newspaper people insist on having that,” she fumed. It was the editors who always wanted this information, this writer attempted to explain. “Oh, I’m in my 70s for heaven’s sake,” she confessed as we quickly changed the subject. 

She had, in fact, just turned 79, having been born on March 20, 1918.

Of her early childhood, McPartland recalled she was starting to pick out tunes by ear on the piano at the age of three. By her early teens, she had become an accomplished, natural pianist, studying for a time at Guildhall, a well-known music school in England. 

In the 1930s, she fell in love with the jazz recordings that the BBC played regularly on its radio service, and began to perform “in a 4-piano act in vaudeville theaters when I was in my twenties.” She went on to become a solo act, and performed frequently for British troops during World War II as part of “a touring USO show.”

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(Below: In a 1974 video clip, Marian McPartland riffs on the 1927 Bix Beiderbecke tune, “In a Mist.”)

It was during this period, in 1944, that she met and fell in love with American musician Jimmy McPartland in Belgium. They were married in Germany in 1945. 

After the war, they moved back to Jimmy’s native Chicago before settling in the New York area where Marian McPartland has lived ever since. They played together a great deal in Jimmy’s band after the war, and “Jimmy was my greatest booster, but he told me that I really must have my own group,” she said. 

During our interview, however, Marian McPartland never brought up how her marriage to Jimmy had begun to falter badly in the late 1950s. The tensions that arose eventually led to the rockiest period in her career—a fact she was only willing to discuss openly quite late in her life.

Earlier however, at the beginning of the 1950s, she started hitting her stride, in an early-stage career where she played with her own band, and started earning a reputation at the Embers, “which was then one of the top clubs in New York,” she said. “And I never had any trouble at all being a woman musician,” she added, pointedly avoiding a discussion of her pioneering efforts. 

During this time, she frequently appeared on early television variety shows. “I was on the original ‘Tonight Show,’ you know, with Steve Allen,” she said. “I think I must have appeared on all the shows back then, like Kate Smith and Patti Page,” variety shows that were hugely popular with American TV audiences.

McPartland devoured jazz styles voraciously, absorbing each musician’s approach and technique. Early influences were stride pianists like Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, and Teddy Wilson. Later on, she naturally embraced bepop, bossa nova, and avant-garde, as well as the later Ellington, Chick Corea, and John Coltrane. She recorded for labels like Capitol and Savoy that were friendly to jazz before establishing her own Halcyon label in 1969.

Marian McPartland interviewing Ramsay Lewis on her radio program in 2009. (Wikipedia)

But it was in 1978 that her career got a two-pronged second boost, when she began recording on the Concord label and launched her celebrated, long running radio program “Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz,” eventually carried on over 240 National Public Radio stations. “That radio show just turned out to be the best thing ever,” she said, expressing considerable amazement at how it all got started. 

“I was contacted by a public educational radio station in Columbia, South Carolina,” that was affiliated with South Carolina Educational TV and National Public Radio, she said. Together they hit on a format joining conversations with current jazz artists plus live, two-piano performances. 

(Below: Trailer for a South Carolina Educational TV appreciation of Marian McPartland.)

McPartland conducted numerous in-depth interviews with many of her jazz contemporaries. “Goodness, over the years, it seems like I’ve had practically everyone on the show,” she reminisced during our interview, “like Oscar Peterson, Rosemary Clooney, Dudley Moore, Dave Brubeck, Alice Coltrane, and many others.”

A surprise hit on NPR virtually from the start, the show’s long-time success was largely attributed to the first-class live music that was performed on the program. Combined with McPartland’s warm and witty commentary—a far-cry from the dry, dreary NPR standard format of politically correct shows like “All Things Considered”—the program became a mainstay for jazz fans old and new. It remained popular until it finally left the air in 2011. 

During our interview, McPartland expressed lingering regret at the loss of her husband and long time partner Jimmy, who died in 1991 at the age of 83. “I really loved all the old tunes that Jimmy and I played, and I still miss him terribly,” she says. 

What she didn’t discuss in our interview, however, was that Jimmy McPartland was her former husband. Her marriage had actually ended in the late 1960s, a cumulative result of Jimmy’s heavy drinking, her abrupt termination as the pianist in Benny Goodman’s orchestra, and her own nervous breakdown.

Looking back on this period of her life for the “Seattle Times” last month, her recent biographer, the paper’s jazz critic Paul de Barros,* reminisced on just how difficult it had been to get the pianist to open up on the painful episodes during that time in her life.

(Below: A delightful 2010 sound clip of Marian McPartland and Norah Jones performing together. Begins with some brief banter, then to the music.)

In [an] interview with the Smithsonian Institution Oral History Project,” Mr. de Barros noted, McPartland “mentioned in passing that she had undergone psychoanalysis in 1963, after being fired by Benny Goodman, something that had deeply upset her equilibrium. During that period, she had also divorced her husband of 23 years, the legendary Chicago jazz cornetist Jimmy McPartland. Was there a connection?” 

After considerable difficulties, McPartland chose to open up to de Barros. One of his “first orders of business was to sort out her very complicated marriage and love life,” including her decade-long affair with her drummer, Joe Morello.

That affair, in a way, marked the beginning of McPartland’s split from her chronically troubled husband and the beginning of a new personal and professional life on her own. Since at least the 1960s, de Barros discovered, McPartland “had not only been protecting her own privacy by refusing to talk about Joe, she had been protecting Jimmy, too, taking on a role as a sort of curator of his memory and legacy. It was a sweet gesture,” he observed, “but it involved keeping alive a very false picture. 

“Despite joining AA, [Jimmy] had been a chronic alcoholic most of his life. It wasn’t until his daughter committed suicide in 1968 – a tragedy Marian also helped Jimmy hide for years – that he finally quit drinking. And Marian’s affair with Joe had, in effect, ended a marriage that had gone stale years before. That’s what the psychoanalysis in 1963 had really been about – not, as she had repeatedly told the press, getting fired by Benny Goodman, though it was a cute story and the Goodman incident – not to mention the assassination of President Kennedy, which happened the same week – had precipitated her breakdown. 

“In fact,” wrote de Barros, “Marian had spent the years between 1963 and 1967, an era when the world seemed to turn upside down and inside out, trying to sort out how, as a woman, as a musician, and as a human being who regarded herself as fair and honest, [she] could put an end to her long affair with Morello (which she did first) and then leave Jimmy, the man who had so generously shepherded her into the world of jazz….”

“Marian’s 1967 divorce from Jimmy,” concludes de Barros, “was by all accounts a very unusual arrangement — ‘the divorce was a failure,’ she often joked – in that the couple never really split up. Though they lived in separate houses, they spent every evening together when they were not on the road. At one point, they even moved back in with each other.” All of which goes a long way to explain why Marian McPartland continued to refer to Jimmy as her “husband” even after his death. 

Clearly, their relationship was indeed a “very unusual arrangement” as de Barros correctly concluded. That said, however, everything familiar to Marian’s legion of fans even today—the radio show, the music, the recordings, and her continuing passionate advocacy for jazz education in the schools—“happened after her divorce.” 

But “[b]ecause of her fierce loyalty to Jimmy,” de Barros writes, as well as those other factors, “Marian found this narrative difficult to unfold.” But, as if reliving a classic, ancient “quest” myth, Marion McPartland descended into a personal hell, but was able to emerge, transformed, on the other side with a new life and a brilliant, influential career just ahead.

In addition to her radio show, hundreds of performances and personal appearances, and numerous, distinctive recordings, McPartland maintained this vigorous career until early the end. After our own interview had come and gone in the late 1990s, she continued with undiminished vigor to encounter and perform new music and new styles, exploring R&B and even studying the Beatles, whose music she greatly admired.

Marian McPartland performing for schoolchildren. St. Joseph’s Villa, Richmond, Virginia, 1975. (Wikipedia)

In 2000, she was honored as a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, later winning a Grammy for lifetime achievement and capping that off by being inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame. As with Duke Ellington, she also continued to venture into the world of classical music and symphonic jazz as a composer, debuting her “Portrait of Rachel Carson” with the University of South Carolina Symphony Orchestra in 2007.

But in the end, educating young jazz listeners and perhaps the occasional would-be youthful jazz performer were the activities that likely remained closest to her heart. During our 1997 interview, she still cherished the memory of an extended educational visit to Washington back in 1974.

“I did a huge program in the local schools for three months, showing the kids how to play jazz,” she said. “I run into some of those teachers and kids in my Washington audiences, and they still remember me,” she noted wistfully. 

It’s a virtual certainty that all those whose lives this great jazz legend and composer touched will long remember the time they spent with Marian McPartland as well. And perhaps that’s the most enduring tribute of all.


*Paul de Barros’ biography of Marian McPartland, “Shall We Play That One Together?: The Life and Art of Jazz Piano Legend Marian McPartland” (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2012) is available via Amazon and through most bookstores.

    —Portions of this article originally appeared in “The Washington Times.”

Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.

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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, movies and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was formerly the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2009) before moving online with Communities in 2010.  



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