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Marian McPartland, pioneering female jazz pianist, dies at 95

Marian McPartland, pianist, composer and host of 'Piano Jazz' on NPR, was one of the genre's most visible female instrumentalists.

August 21, 2013|By Don Heckman
  • Marian McPartland performs during a celebration of her 90th birthday in New York in 2008. McPartland, 95, the legendary jazz pianist and host of the National Public Radio show "Piano Jazz," died of natural causes Tuesday at her home on Long Island.
Marian McPartland performs during a celebration of her 90th birthday in… (Seth Wenig / Associated…)

Marian McPartland, a jazz pianist and composer whose radio show "Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz" was National Public Radio's longest running and most widely carried jazz program, has died. She was 95.

McPartland died of natural causes Tuesday night at her home in Port Washington, N.Y., NPR reported.

One of the jazz world's most visible female instrumentalists, McPartland's highly personal style was rich with colorful harmonies and briskly swinging rhythms, enhanced by a love of bebop, while adapting smoothly to the many stylistic changes taking place in jazz over the course of a career spanning more than half a century.

"Marian McPartland is a harmonic genius," pianist Bill Charlap said. "Her singular musical voice encompasses the past, present and the future of jazz."

Critic John S. Wilson described McPartland's playing in a New York Times review as a "series of paces that were, in effect, a thumbnail history of jazz styles. She took it from basic ragtime to very modern harmonies, throwing in some bebop and some stride piano, shaping the whole concept into an exhilarating performance."

Her versatility proved a distinct asset after the English-born McPartland arrived in the United States in 1946 and moved to Chicago with her husband, cornetist Jimmy McPartland. They performed together for the next three years.

She also discovered a knack for radio in Chicago via a 15-minute daily show. After moving to New York City in 1949, she appeared at the Hickory House jazz club for a decade in the '50s and early '60s. Her trio, with Bill Crow on bass and Joe Morello on drums, made its first Capitol recording, "The Marian McPartland Trio," in 1954. "We were practically reading each other's minds while improvising," recalled Crow on the album liner notes.

Her trio's performances made the Hickory House a favorite gathering place for musicians, with Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, Billy Strayhorn and Oscar Peterson among the many who came to listen and, at times, to sit in with McPartland.

A thoughtful, generous woman who was as articulate with a pen as she was imaginative and lyrical with her piano, McPartland was quick to acknowledge and honor the players who had the greatest effect on her music.

"One of my greatest influences was Duke Ellington," she wrote in a 1999 article for Piano & Keyboard Magazine. "I listened to Fats Waller (though not as much as Duke), [but] I never really got into stride piano. Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton, with whom I later worked, influenced me, as did Mel Powell, Teddy Wilson and Jess Stacy. Then other people came into the picture, like Art Tatum and Bud Powell. What has stayed with me is Bill Evans."

She celebrated her love of Ellington in 2000, with the Concord CD tribute, "Marian McPartland: The Single Petal of a Rose, the Essence Of Duke Ellington."

Over the second half of her career McPartland was best known as the engaging hostess of NPR's "Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz."

"They wanted to do something on jazz that was varied instrumentally," McPartland told author Len Lyons in "The Great Jazz Pianists." "But I thought about it and came back to them with the idea that I wanted to concentrate on just the piano." Further discussions refined the concept to include piano solos by guests, as well as duets with McPartland.

Over the show's more than three-decade run beginning in spring 1979, nearly 500 artists — many of them legendary jazz performers — appeared on "Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz." Despite the enormous stylistic range of her guests, she seemed to adapt easily to their unique qualities, both musically and in conversation.

Among the many artists who appeared on "Piano Jazz": Teddy Wilson, George Shearing, Peterson, Dave Brubeck, Cecil Taylor, McCoy Tyner, Ahmad Jamal, Hank Jones and Brad Mehldau. Although the early bookings concentrated on pianists, the programming choices became much wider over the years, eventually including pop performers such as Steely Dan, Alicia Keys, Ray Charles and Boz Scaggs. She recorded her last "Piano Jazz" show in 2010.

She was born Margaret Marian Turner on March 20, 1918, in Slough, Buckinghamshire, England. Her father, a civil engineer, moved the family several times while she was growing up. Demonstrating an early fascination with the piano — including the ability to pick out tunes when she was 3 years old — McPartland's parents nonetheless insisted that she take violin lessons.

"I never really enjoyed the violin," she told International Musician in 1969. "I would practice in lackluster fashion, with one eye on the clock, and when the minute time was up, I rushed back to the piano again."

At 17, she was accepted as a scholarship student at the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama. McPartland found herself drawn to jazz after a boyfriend introduced her to the playing of Ellington, Tatum, Waller and Wilson.

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