Marian McPartland Leaves Active Duty At Piano Jazz

By , Columnist
Over the course of her 31 years hosting Piano Jazz, her popular NPR program, pianist Marian McPartland has presented, interviewed, and played with an staggering array of musicians.

Initially devoted exclusively to dialogues with the best and brightest of her fellow jazz pianists—early guests included (and this is a short list) Mary Lou Williams, Eubie Blake, Bill Evans, Chick Corea, Billy Taylor, Oscar Peterson, and George Shearing—McPartland later broadened her scope, including improvisers across the instrumental spectrum and a cohort of world-class singers, famous and obscure, including Tony Bennett, Joe Williams, Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Rosemary Clooney, Elvis Costello, Diana Krall, Norah Jones, and Esperanza Spaulding.  

Now 93 and afflicted with osteoporosis in recent years, McPartland has recently used guest hosts—pianists Bill Charlap and John Weber among them—to guest-host new segments and presented material from the Piano Jazz archives, which number over 700 shows. Yesterday, South Carolina ETV Radio, which produces the popular show (its long list of honors include a 1983 George Foster Peabody Award for Excellence in Broadcasting and a 2001 “Gracie” from American Women in Radio and Television), officially confirmed that McPartland, who remains as artistic director, will no longer generate or host new programs.

Two 13-part spinoffs will ensue. One, which launches in January and is hosted by Webster, will feature jazz artists; the other, which launches in in April and is hosted by Michael Feinstein, is devoted to the Great American Songbook.

Born and raised in Windsor, England, McPartland, who studied at London's prestigious Guild Hall school, began her professional life on a four-piano vaudeville gig in 1936, and entertained the troops during World War II. On a USO tour, she met her future husband, the well-known Chicago school trad cornetist Jimmy McPartland. She accompanied him to the U.S. in 1946, toured with his band, and subsequently found employment as a trio leader in upscale 52nd Street venues like the Embers and the Hickory House.

During those years she employed such virtuosos as bassists Steve Swallow, Albert Stinson, and Eddie Gomez and drummers Joe Morello, Jake Hanna, and Pete LaRoca. She met everyone who was anyone in the business, and around 1970, she established a record label (Halcyon), on which she documented herself prolifically, including two piano duet albums with the likes of Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines, and Ellis Larkins, and a subtle recital of the songs of Alec Wilder entitled Marian McPartland Plays the Music of Alec Wilder. In 1978, Wilder, about to leave a syndicated NPR show based on his book American Popular Song, recommended McPartland to replace him, and Piano Jazz was born.

If her forthcoming schedule can be taken as evidence, McPartland has no intention of retiring. A documentary on her life and times entitled In Good Time: The Piano Jazz of Marian McPartland premiered on Tuesday at the Maine International Film Festival in Waterville, Maine, and St. Martin’s Press has a print biography, co-authored with Seattle journalist Paul DeBarros. Osteoporosis or no osteoporosis, she’s booked for a September 19 “And Friends” night at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in the Jazz at Lincoln Center complex at Columbus Circle in Manhattan.

Piano Jazz is unique,” McPartland told an interviewer several years ago. “I feel so lucky to be able to pick so many of my favorite people and have them come and do the show with me. Each show has a different character because of the varying qualities and the nature of the individuals, and doing it excites me just as much as ever. That's the great thing about jazz itself, that every person is so completely individual. I always felt lucky, too, to be doing something I like, not nine to five and hating every minute. And it has some good in it for other people. It’s not just a self-serving thing.”

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Ted Panken writes about jazz and creative music for DownBeat, Jazziz, and many other outlets; he broadcast it from 1985 to 2008 on WKCR. He recently launched a blog called Today Is The Question.

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