Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Milestones

By Mark Jordan

MAY 18, 1998:  Over just the next few months, Marian McPartland will have experienced more personal milestones than anyone should have to face in their lifetime.

Last March, she celebrated her 80th birthday with a star-studded concert at New York’s Town Hall. This June, Concord will release her 50th album, Just Friends, which teams her with a half-dozen of jazz’s greatest pianists – Dave Brubeck, George Shearing, Geri Allen, Gene Harris, Renee Rosnes, and Tommy Flanagan. And early next year, she will celebrate the 20th anniversary of her Peabody Award-winning public-radio show Piano Jazz with “a party or something.”

But despite the high numbers, McPartland and her music are as vital as ever. And she is enjoying probably the biggest audience of her career. She plays dozens of dates around the country a year – either alone, as she will do in Memphis this Sunday when she plays Calvary Episcopal Church, or with her combo. However, it is through her Piano Jazz (featured on 250 public-radio stations worldwide but, sadly, no longer in Memphis), that she reaches the most people.

Piano Jazz is a simple concept: Just stick the affable McPartland and a musical guest alone in a studio and record them playing and talking. But as you listen, it’s easy to imagine that the two are actually at a cocktail party in an opulent Manhattan penthouse. In fact, it’s very easy to imagine the show of another time entirely – a more romantic, sophisticated time of tuxedos and highballs, Broadway shows and late-night jam sessions, Charlie Parker and Noel Coward.

It’s an impression that is established by the music – melodic, emotive-but-studied jazz grounded in swing but full of be-bop playfulness. And it is reinforced by McPartland’s voice – high but earthy, missing the accent of her youth but still betraying the legendary cool British reserve.

McPartland was actually born Margaret Marian Turner just outside of Windsor, England, where the British royal family has its summer home. “One of my uncles was the jeweler to the royal family,” she says. “I guess that’s impressive, if you care about that sort of thing.”

A piano student since childhood, her early musical influences were “whatever happened to be playing on the radio.” But by the the time she turned 17 and entered the prestigious Guildhall School of Music in London to study the classics, she had discovered her passion for American jazz.

“When I was a teenager I had a boyfriend who was really into jazz,” she says. “He exposed me to it by bringing over records that we would listen to in the parlor … almost immediately I was struck by it.”

Though McPartland now considers her formal training invaluable (“There’s a school of thought that playing the classics gets in the way of jazz playing,” she says. “But that’s not true. I think that the discipline of playing the classics – learning finger settings and such – makes it easier to learn and play all kinds of music.”), she left the Guildhall after only three years to join a vaudeville tour.

When World War II broke out, she then joined the ENSA and later its American equivalent, the USO. “That’s when I met my husband, Jimmy [McPartland], who, by the way, was one of the great cornet players from Chicago,” she says, recalling the Belgium jam session where the two first met.

Soon afterward, the two married, and the new Mrs. McPartland returned with her husband to America. After a few years in Chicago, the couple moved in 1950 to New York, where McPartland stepped away from her husband’s band to form her own trio. After successful gigs at places like the Embers Club, in 1952 the Marian McPartland Trio started its famous 10-year-plus run at the Hickory House. It was a gig that made McPartland’s reputation, leading to her first recording, Marian McPartland At The Hickory House, and winning her new fans among New York’s jazz elite.

“Duke Ellington used to come to the Hickory House all the time to hear us play,” McPartland says. “I think he liked the food. But he liked to come and joke and play, too.”

It was the ’50s and jazz ruled New York. Every night, legends like Bird, Diz, Miles, and ’Trane were filling the city’s smoky clubs with the sounds of be-bop. It must have seemed like the Renaissance, with so many great artists running around in the same circles, competing with and feeding off each other. It’s an era that is remarkably captured in the 1994 documentary A Great Day In Harlem, about a legendary photograph taken in 1958 of dozens of the city’s jazz giants, including McPartland.

“They called that the golden age of jazz, and it really was,” McPartland recalls. “There was so much great jazz around. We were always running around after our own gigs to catch others. It was like being a kid in a candy store. And I learned so much.”

With occasional lapses, McPartland has remained a constant on the New York scene ever since, playing a stint at the famous Cafe Carlyle, among other places. In 1970, she started her own record label, Halcyon. And in 1987 she published a book of jazz essays, All In Good Time.

Though they divorced at one point, she and Jimmy remarried shortly before his death in 1991, and today she lives alone in their Long Island home. “Jimmy and I didn’t have kids,” she once told a reporter. “I just had bass players and drummers.”

But that’s enough. She keeps in touch with family in England and Chicago, but it is her musical family that McPartland is closest to, which is why her radio show dominates so much of her time these days.

“I think Piano Jazz may be the most important thing I’ve done,” she says. “It’s allowed me to meet so many different people and play with so many great musicians. And every show we’ve done is kept in the Library of Congress, where people will always be able to go and listen to them. When you think about it, it’s really an important record of cultural history.”

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