[Dixielandjazz] FW: Marian McPartland interviewed
bhaesler at bigpond.net.au
Wed Mar 16 00:19:04 PST 2005
It looks like I have scooped Signore Barbone on this one from another list!
Jazz's Feisty Grande Dame
At 87, Marian McPartland isn't shy about speaking her mind
by Jonathan Takiff
Philadelphia Daily News, March 15, 2005
"They're old fuddy-duddies, old farts," grumbled Marian McPartland,
speaking about the jazz radio programmers who dare to tamper with
her widely syndicated and much loved radio show, "Piano Jazz."
"When I bring on someone who's jazz influenced but out of the
traditional realm -- a Boz Scaggs, Bela Fleck, Bruce Hornsby or
Steely Dan -- these bastards refuse to run the episode. Can you
imagine, they sit around all day, taking meetings, worrying about
these things? I think it's important to stretch the boundaries a
bit, not just be conservative and predictable, doing a Tony Bennett one
week and an old-line trumpeter the next week. You have to keep
looking to the future, not just to the past."
So maybe this is not the sort of chatter one might expect to hear
out of a properly raised Englishwoman and grande dame of the jazz scene,
a creative soul who's about to celebrate -- if you can believe it --
her 87th birthday.
But it's exactly the sort of talk and thinking that keeps Marian
McPartland feisty and inquisitive and playing with panache, smartly
attuned to the times "and as busy as I've ever been."
Why, in just the past week Marian's been, ahem, dialoguing with her
radio show producer over a recently taped visit with the outspoken
twentysomething singer/songwriter Nellie McKay ("I told my producer
they're not going to kill us if we air something political") and
prepping to tape two more episodes of "Piano Jazz," heard here on
WRTI (90.1 FM), Sunday mornings from 9 to 10.
One of these shows will spotlight former Philadelphian Susan Werner,
a once-folky singer/songwriter who's lately evolved into a cabaret
thrush with self-penned material in a faux-vintage, Cole Porter-ish
vein. "To me her music sounds like the 1940s in England," McPartland
ruminated. "I don't know what she's trying to prove. But there are a
lot of people who think she's absolutely wonderful."
In the past few days, this energetic octogenarian has also flown out
to Phoenix to judge a jazz piano competition (she's a big booster of
music education). And she's been doing interviews to tout two(!) new
album releases hitting stores today.
For appetizers, there's the latest in the series of "Piano Jazz"
show transfers to disc, this one featuring conversation and live
performances with Steely Dan principals Donald Fagen and Walter
Becker, who connected with McPartland as co-celebrants of Duke
Ellington, a major influence on her life and work.
The main course she's serving us today is a star-laden, double-disc
concert set called "Marian McPartland and Friends: 85 Candles --
Live in New York," originally aired on NPR to honor McPartland's 85th
Not one to "sit back and wave like the queen," as usually happens at
such tributes, the honoree was definitely in the thick of things for
more than half the night -- showing off her tender and knowing
ballad touch accompanying Norah Jones on "The Nearness of You," and trading
licks with the likes of trumpeter Roy Hargrove and keyboard whiz kid
Jason Moran on "Summertime."
"He can't fool me with what he's doing," she chuckled about the
fleet-fingered and stylistically adventurous Moran, a latter-day
Thelonious Monk. "I can do anything he does. Jason's a funny guy, and one of
the most interesting young players out there. He's doing something
different and with panache, and it's a lot more fun, frankly, to
play with him that it is with Cecil" (the doggedly experimental Cecil
Taylor, that is).
Oh, and come tomorrow night, the Marian McPartland Trio (with Gary
Mazzaroppi on bass and Glenn Davis, drums) will share the mainstage
at the Kimmel Center with another keyboardist who first made his
mark in the 1940s, Dave Brubeck and his quartet.
"We've done a bunch of these things before," noted
McPartland. "Sometimes I play half and Dave plays half and then we
get together. But I don't like to plan ahead. Whatever comes along,
I can probably deal with it. I just like to have fun, playing and
chatting it up with the audience."
So it's been for McPartland since her childhood in Windsor, England.
Born Margaret Marian Turner, she was first attracted to classical
music, picking out Chopin waltzes on the piano by ear when she was
only 3 years old. Even then, Marian was learning how to cope with
noisy audiences, the perpetual curse of all nightclub-playing jazz
"My mother would have her girlfriends over for tea and she'd
say 'Play something for your Auntie, dear.' I'd be very embarrassed
but would improvise something and they'd instantly start talking,
wouldn't hear a bloody note. Then afterwards, they'd applaud
politely. Jesus, I'm still doing that."
Later, she pursued classical training at London's Guildhall School
of Music but scrapped that (much to the chagrin of her father) to join
a four-piano vaudeville act that traveled throughout Europe during
World War II, entertaining the Allied troops. In Belgium, she met
and began to play with Jimmy McPartland, a Chicago cornetist and
disciple of Bix Biederbecke who'd been discharged from the Army (after
taking part in the Normandy invasion) but stayed to play with the USO.
McPartland lured Marian into his Dixieland-style band and into his
arms. They married and returned to the States, where the now Marian
McPartland earned instant credibility -- never easy for a female
jazz player -- from her associations with Jimmy.
But Dixieland was too formal and limiting for anything-goes, ballads-
to-bebop lover Marian, a constraint she'd also suffer later in an
unhappy stint with the Benny Goodman band.
With hubby's blessing and support, McPartland formed her own trio
and headed off to New York, where the jazz scene of the early 1950s was
exploding. Just before her debut at the Hickory House, a famous
midtown Manhattan jazz club and restaurant, the noted jazz critic
Leonard Feather wrote in Down Beat magazine that McPartland
had "three strikes against her -- being English, white and a woman."
"But I always thought better some publicity than none," she
recalled. "It never bothered me at all. Men would say, 'You play
very well for a girl,' or 'You play very aggressively or strong.' I'd
say, 'Well, women have to be strong, doing all the laundry and
handling babies. Why can't we be strong at the piano? Why should I
lift up my little pinkie and play delicately?'"
A supposed two-week stint at Hickory House nightclub turned into a
historic, 10-year gig, with legends like Oscar Peterson, George
Shearing and Duke Ellington dropping in to lend an ear, advice and
support for this facile femme. In the famous 1958 photograph "Great
Day in Harlem," commissioned for Esquire magazine, there are just
three female faces amidst 60-plus male musicians. McPartland is one
of them, standing alongside and chatting it up with powerhouse
pianist Mary Lou Williams, another role model and guiding light for
Always one to chart her own course, McPartland began to hone her
craft as a songwriter as well as standards performer. Her tunes were
recorded by Tony Bennett and Peggy Lee, among others. During a lean
spell in the '60s, she formed her own record label, Halcyon, to put
out discs by herself and her friends, including Earl Hines, Teddy
Wilson and Dave McKenna.
In the early '70s, she convinced New York's noncommercial radio
station WBAI to let her host a radio show where she'd spin favorite
discs and chat it up with drop-bys like Bill Evans.
"That set me up for 'Piano Jazz,'" she said. The show fell into her
lap after the noted composer and jazz critic Alec Wilder gave up on
his NPR program in 1978 and recommended her as his
replacement, "though he always vehemently denied doing so."
Mary Lou Williams was the first guest (an episode now available on
the "Piano Jazz" disc series), and the format quickly jelled. With
the congenial McPartland easing an oft mike shy guest into the
proceedings, there'd be a breezy mix of discussion (on jazz
technique, stylistic interpretation and personal experience) plus
lots and lots of music performed by the guest and McPartland.
Five-hundred-plus episodes later, McPartland is still going strong
with the series, now broadcast on 200 public radio stations in the
U.S., as well as on satellite and cable outlets throughout Europe
McPartland's playing, she allows, has changed some with the times
"I've got arthritis in my knees and hands. I can't play all these
uptempo runs like I used to, but I think I play better. Duke was the
one who really laid it on me. 'Oooh, Marian, you play so many
notes.' He said it very charmingly, always his way. But I still
thought, 'Hmmm, that's as far as he'd go as criticism.' It took me a
while, but I eventually mellowed out, learned the art of 'less-is-
"I've had the best of everything in my life, and I'm still having
it," McPartland shared in the closing moments of our chat. "But I
miss Jimmy terribly."
Mr. McPartland died in 1991, shortly after the long-divorced (but
always best friends) couple had tied the knot again.
The Best of Marian
With more than 50 albums to her credit, how does one dig in and get
to know Marian McPartland?
Start with "On 52nd Street" (Savoy Jazz Originals/Atlantic), a
mostly live recording from 1953 that captures the early magic of her stand
at the Hickory House night spot with bassist Vinnie Burke and Joe
Morello, shows carried live on New York radio station WOR and later
on the NBC radio network.
Then and forever a celebrant of standards, Marian is heard applying
her tender touch, adventurous runs and big-block chordings (in the
George Shearing/Oscar Peterson vein) to gems like "A Foggy
Day," "The Lady Is a Tramp," "I've Got the World on a String" and "Laura."
Excellent liner notes by Bob Blumenthal are included.
A champion of composers, McPartland's "Plays the Music of Alec
Wilder" (Jazz Alliance) from 1973 offers one of the few
comprehensive collections of his work, while the 1987 disc "Plays the Music
of Billy Strayhorn" (Concord) duly honors the melodist who supplied
many of Duke Ellington's biggest hits.
Last year's double-disc repackage, "Windows" (Concord), combines two
super-sounding recordings from 1979-80, the intimate, studio-
captured "Portrait of Marian McPartland" (mixing standards with
modern tunes by Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea) and the concert
date "At the Festival," which blends haunting ballads ("Willow Weep
for Me," "Here's That Rainy Day") with bouncers like "Cotton Tail"
and "On Green Dolphin Street." Guest saxophonists (Jerry Dodgion,
Mary Fettig) add dynamic range to both sets.
"Live at Shanghai Jazz" (Concord) from 2002 demonstrates that
McPartland isn't getting older, just better, in delicately nuanced
and improvisation-rich interplay with bassist Rufus Reid and her
Hickory House-era drummer Joe Morello.
You'll definitely want to help blow out the candles on the brand
new, double-disc "Marian McPartland & Friends: 85 Candles -- Live in New
York" (Concord), which features an especially rich crew of younger
celebrants (among them Karrin Allyson, Regina Carter, Bill Charlap,
Ravi Coltrane, Nnenna Freelon, Norah Jones, Chris Potter) and
McPartland's savvy involvement on 14 tracks. All tunes were picked,
she says, at the spur of the moment, though you'd never know it.
Also displaying McPartland's depth, knowledge and personal charm are
the nearly dozen available "Piano Jazz" discs (on the Jazz Alliance
imprint), transferred from her NPR radio series. Each mixes
conversation and intimate performances by the pianist and a special
Start with the very first show in the series (from October 1978)
female jazz icon Mary Lou Williams. Also special, Lionel Hampton's
surprising mix of performances on vibes, piano and vocals with
Marian from 1989; her anything-you-can-do, I-can-do showdown with Chick
Corea from 2001, and the just-out-today, insight-rich session with
Steely Dan (Walter Becker, Donald Fagen). FYI, the "Piano Jazz" talk
segments are separate tracks, thus easily skipped when you want to
hear just the music.
-- Jonathan Takiff
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