Marian McPartland

Remember that iconic 1958 photograph in which 57 jazz musicians gathered on the steps of a brownstone in Harlem called “A Great Day in Harlem?” There were three jazzwomen in that photo and one of them was Marian McPartland. Originally from London, McPartland would become a hugely important musician, jazz educator, and champion for women musicians, the growth of the jazz community, and jazz as an art form. Her treatment of ballads is especially gorgeous, her harmonic sense is both grounded and adventurous, and her feel is great in the up-tempo numbers as well. I really love her playing! Listen for yourself: here is a playlist of her work.

Marian McPartland, Mary Lou Williams, and Thelonious Monk
at the “Great Day in Harlem” photo shoot in 1958

She began playing piano at age 3 and never stopped. In a 2005 interview, she said, “From that moment on, I don’t remember ever not playing piano, day and night, wherever I was,” she said. “At my aunt’s house, at kindergarten — wherever they had a piano, I played it. Of course, on the BBC they played all the hits from over here [in the U.S.]. They played them, I heard them and I learned them.”

She attended Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London until leaving to join a four-piano vaudeville act. She joined the USO during WWII and it was there she met her husband, cornetist Jimmy McPartland. After the war, they moved to the states, settling and working together in Chicago for a few years until (at Jimmy’s suggestion) she formed her own trio around 1950. From then on, she would always have a trio. In the early ’60s, she moved to New York and toured with Benny Goodman’s septet in 1963. In 1969, she co-founded her own record label, Halcyon Records, producing the work of underrated or underrepresented jazz artists. [2] Here is a beautiful recording of her playing one of my favorite songs:

In 1979, Marian began conducting a weekly radio program for NPR called Piano Jazz, which paired “conversation and duet performances that reached an audience of millions, connecting with jazz fans and the curious alike. She interviewed practically every major jazz musician of the post-WWII era.” [1] According to Wikipedia, “Piano Jazz was the longest-running cultural program on NPR, as well as one of the longest-running jazz programs ever produced on public radio.” It won a Peabody Award for excellence in broadcasting in 1984, and in 1986, won the Gabriel Award and NY Gold Medal Awards. She hosted this show for 40 years until her death in 2013. [2]

Right before her 90th birthday, she composed and performed a symphonic piece.

There’s so much more I could write, but its time for me to get into the practice room. Luckily there are many articles, interviews, and of course episodes of “Piano Jazz,” for you to enjoy and learn more about the incredible Marian McPartland. She led a very musically rich life, has an extensive discography, several honorary doctorates, and many awards and distinctions. I’m so grateful for the work she did and to hear her recordings now!


(Re)sources

[1] Felix Contreras. “Marian McPartland, ‘Piano Jazz’ Host, Has Died.” NPR. August 21, 2013. (https://www.npr.org/sections/therecord/2013/08/21/161653933/marian-mcpartland-piano-jazz-host-has-died).

[2] Wikipedia contributors, “Marian McPartland,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Marian_McPartland&oldid=879132289 (accessed January 20, 2019).

Linda Dahl, Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984).

“Marian McPartland.” NEA Jazz Masters. (https://www.arts.gov/honors/jazz/marian-mcpartland).

Paul De Barros. Shall We Play That One Together? The Life and Art of Jazz Piano Legend Marian McPartland. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2012).

Sally Placksin, American Women in Jazz 1900 to the Present. (New York: Seaview Books, 1982). 

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