Jazz's first lady happy to be a musician
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by Seth Rogovoy
(LENOX, Mass., August 26, 2002) – For Marian McPartland, playing concerts is fun. But she’s most proud of the work for which she is best known, hosting National Public Radio’s “Piano Jazz.”
“It’s really I feel maybe the best thing I’ve done in my life,” said McPartland – who does a live taping in Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood as part of this weekend’s jazz festival on Saturday at 3 – in a recent phone interview from her home on the north shore of Long Island.
“To me it’s not only fun to do, but it’s not as self-serving as going out and playing a concert and saying ‘Look at me,’” said McPartland, whose guest tomorrow will be the pianist Sir Roland Hanna.
“It involves other people, and a lot of time it is helpful to other people. They may not be so well known, and they might get more gigs after doing the show.
“And of course in this horrible time after the tragedy last year, people need and want music, and I think music is such a force for good things that it’s the best profession you could be in.”
McPartland delivers music as well as conversation on her weekly radio program, typically featuring another pianist but lately and more often featuring another musician, sometimes even outside of what is typically considered jazz. Recent guests have included Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, better known as the jazz-minded rock group Steely Dan, and country singer Willie Nelson.
“We started with only piano players, and then people who played piano as a second instrument,” said McPartland. “Then we added singers, and then people like [banjoist] Bela Fleck.
“Soon we’ll have Woody Allen. We’ve always tried to broaden it as much as we can. There are still people we’d like to have, like Quincy Jones and Stevie Wonder. And then of course I like to feature some of the women players of which there are now a great many. We’ve also had odd people like Studs Terkel on. He’s such a jazz fan. We played his favorite records and I played his favorite tunes.”
McPartland said that preparation for each week’s taping is minimal. “It’s just like two people having a conversation in their living room,” she said. “The only piece of paper I have is a list of tunes, and maybe I’ll have written down a few questions in case my mind goes blank.
“A lot of times it doesn’t go where you think it’s going to go, depending on how voluble the guest is. A few have not been good talkers, and I have to kind of work to get them to open up.
“But usually they are very open and tell a lot of things that they wouldn’t say anywhere else. The thing that’s good about it is that in the future if people want to do research on any of these people, it’s all available at the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress for people to use.”
For “Piano Jazz” addicts who just can’t get enough, there is a growing catalog of commercial releases of the program on CD. Recent releases, all on the Jazz Alliance label, include copies of “Piano Jazz” segments featuring legendary guests like Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Carmen McRae and Chick Corea.
McPartland also continues to be a recording artist in her own right. Her most recent CDs include “Live at Shanghai Jazz,” recorded with her trio, and “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” a duet album with pianist Willie Pickens recorded live at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago, both on the Concord Jazz label.
“Piano Jazz” is usually recorded in a studio, but McPartland doesn’t foresee performing in front of a live audience as a problem.
“I know it’s going to be a good audience, that I don’t worry about,” she said. “There’s really not that many challenges that we don’t have any time. We’re going to have two terrific pianos, and Roland’s been on the show two or three times before. But playing for a live audience is not difficult because they seem to feel that they’re being let in on something.
“A lot of people who listen to the show don’t realize that sometimes we have to stop and start again. They will feel like they are on the inside. I hope I’m not going to make too many mistakes. Sometimes you start the tune wrong, or you don’t like the way you did it. But usually it’s pretty smooth. We’re not afraid, we just charge ahead. But sometimes it takes us three hours to do an hour show.”
On those rare occasions when the going gets rough, McPartland, who is 84, has over 60 years of experience at improvising at the piano to draw upon. She spent her early years in Wollwich, England, learning to play by ear by imitating her mother. At age 17, she landed a scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music in London. A short time later, she hit the road with a music hall troupe, much to the dismay of her scandalized parents.
In 1944, performing for the Allied troops in a group headed by Fred Astaire, she met American jazz cornetist Jimmy McPartland. The two hit it off, and she returned with him to the U.S. two years later as Marian McPartland, pianist in the Jimmy McPartland band.
Eventually, she landed her own long-running gig leading her trio at the Hickory House, where she forged her own musical identity at the encouragement of her husband.
“He kept saying you must have your own group,” she said. “He was so proud and helpful.” Although the two divorced in the 1960s, they remained close friends and remarried in 1991 shortly before McPartland died.
While it must have undoubtedly been challenging for a woman to make it as a leader in the man’s world that was and still in large part is jazz unless the woman is a singer, McPartland refuses to complain.
“I don’t recall anyone not wanting to work with me because I was a woman,” said McPartland. “I always had great players. I was always doing the hiring so I didn’t have to wait for the phone to ring.
“Gloria Steinem once said to me, ‘Oh, you must have had a terrible time with your group. I said I didn’t. They always were terrific and very helpful. I had Joe Morello and Bill Crowe for so many years.”
If anything, McPartland is more exercised these days over people’s assumptions about elderly musicians.
“People assume that when you’re in your seventies and eighties that you can’t play anymore,” she said. “Why shouldn’t I still be playing? There’s a bunch of us in our eighties, Dave Brubeck, George Shearing, me, who are still playing.
“I think I play better now than I did when I was younger because I’ve learned what to leave out and be more careful and not be barreling over the piano with too many notes.”
Mostly, McPartland can’t imagine being anything but a musician. “I’m so happy not to be a corporate person,” she said. “I wouldn’t know how to behave. I’m used to being around musicians and we use four-letter words and no political-correctness. But I do think in this particular time people need music desperately.”
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on August 30, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]
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