Marian McPartland, Jazz Pianist, Longtime Radio Host, Dies at 95

Pianist Marian McPartland
A file photo from 1970 shows jazz pianist Marian McPartland. McPartland, the British-born host of “Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz” who was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2007, has died at the age of 95. Source: Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images

Marian McPartland, the British-born jazz pianist whose broadcasts on National Public Radio for more than three decades brought insights into the music she loved to millions of listeners, has died. She was 95.

She died yesterday at her home on Long Island, New York, of natural causes, NPR said on its website.

As host of “Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz,” she interviewed and played with pianists, backed singers and musicians including Oscar Peterson, Keith Jarrett, Benny Goodman, Norah Jones and Elvis Costello. The show, which she began hosting in 1979, became the longest-running cultural program of its kind on NPR, and she was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2007. She stopped hosting the show in 2010 while continuing as artistic director.

McPartland’s piano duets were “exercises in cooperative improvisation, in a manner exemplifying the jazz spirit,” critic Nat Hentoff wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2008, marking her 90th birthday.

Margaret Marian Turner was born on March 20, 1918, and grew up in Bromley, England, southeast of London, and was playing piano by ear at age 3. Following a teacher’s advice, she studied the instrument at London’s Guildhall School of Music & Drama in the 1930s. At 20, she left and joined a four-piano vaudeville act, to the horror of her middle-class parents.

An early boyfriend introduced her to Duke Ellington’s records, she wrote, “and from then on I was hooked.”

Wartime Entertainment

She was playing jazz when World War II began and joined a troupe of performers entertaining soldiers in France. Playing with various groups for GIs was a valuable experience, “learning more tunes, how to play more simply behind solos, and how to keep better time,” she said. “Suddenly jazz records sounded more meaningful.”

In 1944 she met the American jazz cornet player Jimmy McPartland, who was in a U.S.O. group after landing in Normandy with a U.S. Army combat unit.

“She rushed the tempo, this English girl playing jazz,” he recalled later. “She tried to talk and act GI, but I knew she was a lady.”

They were married in 1945 in Aachen, Germany, and played at their own wedding.

After the war, she performed for a while with McPartland’s Dixieland Quintet in Chicago. Their careers and lives diverged when she heeded bebop’s siren call and headed to New York and the couple divorced.

‘Three Strikes’

Her first review, from critic Leonard Feather, began by noting she had “three strikes against her: she’s English, white and a woman.”

“Somehow this seemed like an accolade,” she wrote later. “I liked it when someone would say, ‘You play just like a man.’” She even liked it if they said, “You play good for a girl.”

McPartland led a trio at New York’s Hickory House, where she was hired for a two-week engagement and she stayed eight years. Ellington and Peterson were among those who sat in on piano.

Early on, Ellington came up after a set and with a smile told McPartland, “My dear, you play so many notes.”

It took a while, said McPartland, to realize “he was telling me that I was playing too many notes that were getting in the way of what I was trying to say.”

Carlyle Surprise

She had a steady gig at New York’s Carlyle Hotel where she gave her “old friend and former husband” a surprise 70th birthday party, jazz critic Whitney Balliett reported in the New Yorker in 1977.

“Jimmy put the occasion in focus by saying, ‘I suggest that all married people get divorced and begin treating each other like human beings,’ which is exactly what the McPartlands did seven years ago,” Balliett added. The two remarried shortly before Jimmy McPartland died in 1991.

Over the years, McPartland’s piano playing became “more thoughtful” even while performing in small rooms where waiters bustled about serving drinks. When performing with Jimmy McPartland and others, Balliett wrote, she “proved the truism that jazz pianists play better in a crowd than by themselves.”

McPartland maintained that pianists need to know a song’s lyrics to perform it well.

“How can one put feeling and understanding into a piece without knowing the words?” she wrote.

She began writing for Downbeat magazine in 1949 when she found herself a spectator at a Paris jazz festival.

‘Favorite Musicians’

Her 1987 autobiography, “All in Good Time,” included pieces on Goodman and saxophonist Paul Desmond as well as Bill Evans and Alec Wilder, two of many pianists she interviewed and played with on her radio program.

McPartland wrote the book in “appreciation of some of my favorite musicians,” and it offers perceptive insights into music-making. Approvingly, she quoted Evans’s advice for young pianists: “It’s much better to spend 30 hours on one tune than to play 30 tunes in one hour.”

Desmond studied writing at San Francisco State University before dropping out when he “finally decided that writing was like playing jazz -- it can be learned but not taught,” she wrote.

To listeners, McPartland confided her love of ballads, particularly minor-key songs. “If you’re in a group and things aren’t going well, playing some minor-key tune will bring you back,” she said.

Modest Artist

She was a champion of women in jazz, singers and instrumentalists as well as pianists, though quiet about her own playing. “I know I’m not bad,” she said when pressed, “but I’m not going to rate myself -- that would be terrible.”

Still, she was proud that pianists whose arms she almost literally twisted to appear on her NPR show -- Ray Charles, Dave Brubeck, Keith Jarrett -- finally agreed and enjoyed playing with her.

McPartland founded Halcyon Records after recording dozens of albums for other labels. Pianists who then recorded for Halcyon include Earl Hines and Teddy Wilson.

She liked the challenge of improvising jazz duets on her broadcasts -- though this sometimes made guests leery of coming on the show. Brubeck resisted for years by saying he was too nervous. He consented only when his bass player was allowed to be on hand in the control room if needed.

“So we started the show and he just went at it; you never knew he was nervous,” McPartland told the Wall Street Journal.

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