Pianist and Radio Host Marian McPartland Dies at 95
Marian McPartland, the jazz pianist who became a popular radio show host, died Aug. 20 at her home in Port Washington, N.Y. She was 95.
For more than 30 years, McPartland entertained and educated listeners as the host of the public radio program Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz. Among the dozens of musicians who appeared on the show were Dave Brubeck, Dr. Billy Taylor, Dizzy Gillespie, Chick Corea, Mary Lou Williams, Don Byron, Dr. John, Muhal Richard Abrams, Cecil Taylor, Bobby Short, Elvis Costello and Willie Nelson.
McPartland’s warm British accent added to her widespread appeal as a radio personality. The show became wildly successful because of McPartland’s skills as both a musician and an interviewer, as she invited her famous guests to play duets and engage in lively, free-flowing conversations about music.
McPartland was born in 1918 as Margaret Marian Turner in Windsor, England, and studied classical music at a young age. She soon fell under the sway of jazz and met the cornetist Jimmy McPartland during World War II. They married in 1945 and moved together to Chicago the following year.
In an edited excerpt from the biography Shall We Play That One Together?: The Life And Art Of Jazz Piano Legend Marian McPartland (St. Martin’s Press), which appeared in the November 2012 issue of DownBeat, author Paul de Barros tracks McPartland’s musical development in Chicago.
“Her playing was undoubtedly a work in progress, as she leapfrogged from Jimmy’s four-on-the-floor trad to the more abstract and complex style of bop, effectively skipping the swing era altogether,” wrote de Barros.
By the ’50s, the McPartlands had moved to New York, where they participated in a golden age of jazz. McPartland was one of three women—along with Mary Lou Williams and Maxine Sullivan—to appear in the historic photograph A Great Day in Harlem, which was taken on Aug. 12, 1958, and published in the January 1959 issue of Esquire.
McPartland released records on various labels before forming her own record company, Halcyon, in 1969.
She spent 29 years recording for Concord Jazz, where she released more than 50 albums.
Her compositions were recorded by Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughan and others.
McPartland was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 2000. In 2004, she was awarded a Grammy Trustees’ Award for lifetime achievement by The Recording Academy. She was also a recipient of the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for her work as a broadcaster. Among the accolades that Piano Jazz received was a Peabody Award in 1983.
In addition to her work in radio, McPartland also wrote articles about jazz, first appearing in the pages of DownBeat as a journalist in 1949.
“Joe Morello is a man of many natures. Restless, quiet, at times effervescent, at others the life of the party or completely aloof,” she wrote in a 1965 profile of drummer Joe Morello for DownBeat.
Commenting on John Coltrane in the May 1, 1961, issue, McPartland wrote: “‘Giant Steps’ is, to me, one of the most perfectly put together compositions I have played—the harmony and the chord structure are so well
planned. The discipline involved in playing this piece may have led some musicians to avoid it and turn instead to the freer forms, but I think that in order to earn the right to play in a completely free style one has to first gain mastery of one’s instrument and a knowledge of repertoire—not just tunes of today, but of yesterday and the day before.”
McPartland appeared on the cover of the July 13, 1951, issue of DownBeat, and wrote dozens of pieces for the magazine. She was also the subject of the DownBeat Blindfold Test twice.
Survivors include two grandchildren. (Jimmy McPartland, whom she divorced and later remarried, died in 1991.)
To read McPartland’s 1964 essay on pianist Mary Lou Williams, click here.
To read her 1965 essay on drummer Joe Morello, click here.