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Jazz pianist known for her melodic style

Marian and Friends at the Chan, November 21, 2003

The Vancouver Courier

by Chris Wong

To get an idea of Marian McPartland’s stature in the jazz world, look at the list of major artists who performed at her 85th birthday party last March. The musicians gathered at Birdland in New York City for the birthday bash ranged from elders such as Clark Terry, Tony Bennett, and Phil Woods to relative youngsters like Dave Douglas, Regina Carter and Norah Jones.

The generationally diverse turnout said a lot about the widely held respect for McPartland as an enchanting pianist with a melodic style. It also spoke to the admiration for her role as the engaging host of a widely syndicated radio show: Piano Jazz, which has been on National Public Radio for 25 years.

“I thought it would be more like three months,” she says, on the phone from her home in Port Washington, N.Y. “I wasn’t that confident in myself and I didn’t know that people would catch on to it the way they have,” adds McPartland, who gives a rare Vancouver performance Nov. 21 at the Chan Centre with bassist Jim Cox and drummer Charlie Braugham. (Dee Daniels and the Dal Richards are also on the bill.)

The radio program’s longevity isn’t surprising considering McPartland’s overall endurance as a performer. Born in a small English village near Windsor Castle, McPartland got her start in a four-piano vaudeville act that played in Europe for troops during World War II. She married American cornetist Jimmy McPartland and they moved to the U.S. in 1946. From 1952 to 1960, McPartland led a trio at New York’s Hickory House, where many jazz greats sat in with the band. Since the ’50s, McPartland has released dozens of albums, all showcasing her instinct for impeccable swing and rich harmony. Concord Records has released more than 60 McPartland recordings, including Live at Shanghai Jazz, which shows her ability to create beautifully textured sounds hasn’t diminished.


Each edition of Piano Jazz, which broadcasts Saturdays from 5 to 6 p.m. on Tacoma’s KPLU (93 .5 cable FM in Vancouver), features McPartland and a well-known or up-and-coming musician in conversation and spontaneous duets. “People tell me that it’s like I’m in my living room with somebody and we’re just chatting and playing a few tunes. It’s very informal. I think that’s what people like about it.”

Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Dizzy Gillespie and Eubie Blake have been among the show’s most memorable guests. But McPartland hasn’t restricted the program to jazz musicians. Steely Dan, Dr. John, Willie Nelson and Elvis Costello have also been on the program.

Jazz, however, has been her lifelong passion, and McPartland has seen firsthand how the art form has evolved. “One thing that’s terribly sad is that so many of our great players have died, like Milt Jackson and J.J. Johnson. There are very good players out there, but to me, nobody can replace people like that. I’m waiting for somebody to come along that I can call great, and I haven’t seen anyone so far.”

One positive development has been decreasing bias against female jazz instrumentalists. “For the most part that has pretty much disappeared. You don’t hear anybody saying stupid things like, ‘How does it feel to be a woman in a man’s world?’ Somebody did say that to me not too long ago and I laughed, and I said, ‘My God, where have you been?’ Nobody had said that to me for 25 years. He evidently had not heard … that there are some great women players out there.”

She especially admires pianist and former Vancouverite Renee Rosnes. “That woman is fabulous. I remember going to hear her when she was working with J.J. He was so proud of her. He would stand back when she took a solo and had a big smile on his face.”

As for her own extraordinary musical life, McPartland sums it up this way: “I’ve been lucky, having somebody like Jimmy to help me along the way, who was very encouraging. I’ve been lucky to have all the friends that I’ve had, like Duke Ellington. I can name so many people who helped. I’ve had great sidemen like Joe Morello and Bill Crow and many others. It seems to me I’ve just been pretty fortunate along the way.”

Wed Nov 19, 2003