Pianist Marian McPartland talks about turning 90

Marian McPartland

Pianist Marian McPartland introduces the next jazz tune to the audience at the Symphony Center in Chicago. (Stacie Freudenberg/ChicagoTribune / June 9, 2006)

Chicago Tribune columnist Howard Reich spoke with Marian McPartland shortly before her 90th birthday in 2008.

Marian McPartland knows exactly what she wants for her 90th birthday: Stevie Wonder.    

That is she'd like to have the master songwriter finally agree to be a guest on her long-running, globally syndicated radio show, "Piano Jazz".   

Short of that, pianist McPartland realizes she has achieved just about everything else that can be accomplished in a life in jazz. Having riffed with everyone from Tony Bennett to Elvis Costello on her 29-year-old radio show, having recorded more than 60 albums and shattered more glass ceilings than she can remember, she believes she's entitled to slow her tempo just a bit.    

"I don't want to do long trips anymore -- I'm so sick of what's going on in the airlines, though I'd probably come out to play for Joe Segal's new place," says McPartland, referring to Chicago's celebrated Jazz Showcase.
   
Clearly McPartland keeps pace with developments in the city where the British-born pianist launched her American career, in 1945. Yet she battles the vicissitudes of age.    

"I fractured my pelvis -- stupidly, tripping over something in my bedroom -- but I'm over it now," she adds, indomitably, speaking from her home in Long Island, N.Y. "I've got such bad arthritis in my knees I can't walk, but my hands are OK, I still can play."    

That's unmistakable from her newest CD, "Twilight World" (Concord Records), which seduces the ear with the poetry of her original compositions (including the widely known title track) and the signature lyricism of her pianism. Though the disc, not surprisingly, shows less technical prowess than McPartland commanded even a decade ago -- as a youthful septuagenarian -- the warm glow of her tone and the expressive complexity of her harmonies make "Twilight World" one of her most appealing releases.    

That's no small feat in a discography that includes such pleasures as the softly shimmering "Silent Pool" (with Alan Broadbent's lush string arrangements) and a long list of CDs documenting her "Piano Jazz" shows with such noteworthy guests as pianists Eubie Blake and Bill Evans, trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Clark Terry and saxophonist Lee Konitz (on Concord's Jazz Alliance subsidiary).

But it's the totality of McPartland's career -- as pianist, composer, bandleader, jazz advocate, writer and former record-label owner -- that inspires accolades from her colleagues on the occasion of her 90th.   

"I've always been in awe of her musicality ... and what she stands for and her playing and, obviously, her longevity," says pianist Dick Hyman, who has scored several of Woody Allen's films.    

"She's a great example of expanding one's talents to cover all kinds of media," observes Chicago pianist-broadcaster Ramsey Lewis, himself a multimedia phenomenon. "But I don't think any of this would have happened if she had not started out being a wonderful pianist.

"I've admired her continuously -- ever since I first heard her in the London House in Chicago and was amazed at her ability to swing. The longevity of her 'Piano Jazz' show speaks to her ability to talk to Everyman."

Adds former Chicagoan Judy Roberts, writing via e-mail from Bangkok, where she's in residence this winter, "As a young jazz-playing teen, I worshiped her from afar. She was my first role model as not only a woman who played great piano but also as an artist who presented herself as a liberated jazz musician."   

McPartland, in other words, refused to conform to the constraints routinely applied to women in jazz through most of the 20th Century. Though she began her travels in music as a precocious 3-year-old noodling Chopin waltzes she heard at home in Windsor, England, she quickly gravitated toward jazz. Musicians such as Duke Ellington, Mary Lou Williams, Hazel Scott, Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson and James P. Johnson thundered on radio and record, and the emerging artist could not resist.

Except for a few months of lessons on piano and two tortuous years on violin (at her mother's insistence), McPartland essentially taught herself to play. An extremely acute ear and a natural facility on the keyboard won her admission to London's prestigious Guildhall School of Music, which she suffered for three years.

"One day a professor heard me in the practice room, and he opened up the door while I was trying to play like [Art] Tatum, and he said, 'Stop playing that trash,'" she once told the Tribune. "And that really made me want to do jazz all the more."

So in 1938 she announced to her parents that she had accepted a spot with Bill Mayerl and the Claviers, a four-piano vaudeville act. Her father, who was "horrified," she says, offered her 1,000 pounds to turn down the job, but Margaret Marian Turner promptly renamed herself Marian Page, quit school and went on the road. While playing USO shows across Europe during World War II, she met the revered Chicago cornetist Jimmy McPartland, who had led the city's fabled Austin High Gang of nascent jazz musicians.    

The couple were married at a military base in Germany in 1945 and moved to Chicago later that year, cornetist McPartland constantly encouraging his bride to lead her own bands. "Jimmy always seemed to be so proud of everything I did, even if it was terrible," says the pianist.

But it wasn't always easy. "There certainly was not a good feeling toward women musicians years ago," says McPartland. "I remember [bassist] Milt Hinton saying, 'I don't mind working with a woman musician, so long as she can play.'

"I think that was the prevailing thought at the time -- that the woman couldn't play as well as the man. It wasn't until they found out we all could that things started to change."

If McPartland's jazz career began in earnest in Chicago, it blossomed in New York, where she moved with her husband in 1949. In Manhattan, McPartland pushed well beyond her husband's vintage-jazz idiom and into the newer, brasher, more musically challenging world of bebop. Her trio became something of an institution at Hickory House, on 52nd Street, through most of the '50s, gaining fame especially for its mid-decade lineup with drummer Joe Morello and bassist Bill Crow.

As youth-oriented rock 'n' roll pushed jazz out of the commercial marketplace in the 1960s, McPartland found she couldn't get a record deal, so she simply started a label of her own, Halcyon.

"Stan Kenton had his own record company, and Charles Mingus did," says McPartland, "so I thought, 'I'll start my own,'" which she did in 1970, becoming one of the first women jazz musicians to do so.    

"It was hard work -- finding a distributor, selecting art, hiring musicians -- but it was wonderful too," adds McPartland, who ran Halcyon for more than 15 years, recording pianists Earl Hines, Ellis Larkins, Teddy Wilson, Dave McKenna and, of course, herself.
   
But it's "Piano Jazz," which McPartland inaugurated in April 1979 and records in Manhattan, that made her one of the world's most widely known jazz advocates. Inspired by an earlier radio show hosted by songwriter Alec Wilder, who had recommended her for the radio show, "Piano Jazz" from the beginning unfolded as a breezy mix of conversation and musicmaking.

McPartland did not expect it to last for more than a couple of seasons, let alone become the longest-running cultural program on National Public Radio, which distributes it to several hundred stations around the world. Her triumph with "Piano Jazz," as well as her work in so many other arenas, has dramatically extended the possibilities for women in jazz. Though earlier-generation players such as pianists Lil Hardin and Mary Lou Williams were among the first to defy gender stereotypes in jazz, McPartland has flourished in more media and reached larger audiences.

"She has been a pioneer," says Richard Wang, music professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago and vice president of the non-profit Jazz Institute of Chicago. "She's had to fight that battle. It fortunately has been won now, but she was the person who was mainly responsible for winning it. She has shown, as no other person has, that a woman player can be the centerpiece of the music."

On the eve of her 90th, she'll play Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, sharing the stage with Regina Carter, Karrin Allyson, Billy Taylor, Jason Moran and others. "I just want to do this party and then collapse for a while," says McPartland, who has no birthday celebration scheduled for Chicago. It's an omission that some savvy impresario ought to rectify immediately, considering her deep ties to the city -- she and her husband in 1990 donated all their papers and memorabilia to the Chicago Jazz Archive at the University of Chicago.

"I don't mind turning 90," McPartland adds. "It beats any alternative I can think of."

hreich@tribune.com

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