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.