Marian McPartland, Jazz Pianist and NPR Radio Staple, Dies at 95

Marian McPartland at a celebration of her 90th birthday in New York in 2008. Courtesy of Chang W. Lee/The New York Times.

The New York Times

Marian McPartland, Jazz Pianist and NPR Radio Staple, Dies at 95

By Peter Keepnews

August 21, 2013

Marian McPartland, the genteel Englishwoman who became a fixture of the American jazz scene as a pianist and, later in life, hosted the internationally syndicated and immensely popular public radio show “Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz,” died on Tuesday at her home in Port Washington, N.Y. She was 95.”

“Ms. McPartland was a gifted musician but an unlikely candidate for jazz stardom. She recalled in a 1998 interview for National Public Radio that shortly after she arrived in the United States in 1946, the influential jazz critic Leonard Feather, who himself was born in England and who began his career as a pianist, said, “Oh, she’ll never make it: she’s English, white and a woman.”’
“Mr. Feather, she added, “always used to tell me it was a joke, but I don’t think he meant it as a joke.”’

Jazz pianist Marian McPartland and saxophonist Jimmy Heath pose at the Avatar recording studio in New York, Oct. 17, 2000. Heath was one of McPartland's guests for the 21st season of her "Piano Jazz" radio show, which is taped at the studio. Courtesy of Gino Domenico/AP Photo

“The odds against any woman finding success as a jazz musician in the late 1940s and early ’50s were formidable, but Ms. McPartland overcame them with grace. Listeners were charmed by her Old World stage presence and captivated by her elegant, harmonically lush improvisations, which reflected both her classical training and her fascination with modern jazz.”

“By 1958 she was well enough known to be included in Art Kane’s famous Esquire magazine group photograph of jazz musicians, the subject of Jean Bach’s 1994 documentary, “A Great Day in Harlem.” One of the few women in the picture, she stood next to her friend and fellow pianist Mary Lou Williams.”

"A Great Day in Harlem, 1958" by Art Kane. Courtesy of Art Kane Archives.

‘”Ms. McPartland’s contributions to jazz were not limited to her piano playing. An enthusiastic and articulate spokeswoman for the music, she lectured at schools and colleges and wrote for Down Beat, Melody Maker and other publications. (A collection of her essays, “All in Good Time,” was published in 1987 and reissued in 2003.) Most notably, for more than 30 years her “Piano Jazz” was one of the most popular jazz shows ever on the radio.”‘

‘“I didn’t have any idea I’d be good at something like this,” Ms. McPartland told The Associated Press in 2000. “I certainly never thought people would know me because of my voice.” But she proved a natural.”‘

Marian McPartland, who became an articulate spokeswoman for jazz, and the jazz trumpeter Roy Eldridge around the 1950s. Courtesy of Bob Parent/Getty Images.

“As its title suggests, “Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz” was originally a show about piano players. But the guest list came to include vocalists, among them Mel Tormé, Tony Bennett and even Willie Nelson and Elvis Costello, as well as trumpeters, saxophonists and other instrumentalists.”

“Jazz pianists remained the focus, however, and over the years Ms. McPartland played host to some of the most famous, from the ragtime pioneer Eubie Blake to the uncompromising avant-gardist Cecil Taylor. She gamely played duets with all of them, even Mr. Taylor, whose aggressively dissonant approach was far removed from Ms. McPartland’s refined melodicism.”

“I just did the kind of thing he does,” she said. “Or else I went in the opposite direction, and that sounded fairly interesting too.”

“Piano Jazz” was heard on more than 200 radio stations all over the world. It received a Peabody Award in 1983.”

“In her last years Ms. McPartland received numerous honors. She was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 2000, given a lifetime achievement Grammy Award in 2004, inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2007 and named a member of the Order of the British Empire in 2010.”

“Unlike some jazz musicians of her generation, Ms. McPartland never became set in her ways; her playing grew denser and more complex with time, and even late in life she was experimenting with new harmonic ideas. “I’ve become a bit more — reckless, maybe,” she said in 1998. “I’m getting to the point where I can smash down a chord and not know what it’s going to be, and make it work.”’

To read the full article, visit “Marian McPartland, Jazz Pianist and NPR Radio Staple, Dies at 95“.

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