After 80 years, and 20 on public radio

Marian McPartland: still going full tilt

Commentary by David Stewart

McPartland at work during her 80th birthday broadcast in 1998. (Photo: NPR.)

McPartland at work during her 80th birthday broadcast in 1998. (Photo: NPR.)

When the NPR-distributed program Piano Jazz had its 20th anniversary in 1999, Current Contributing Editor David Stewart wrote this profile of the program and its host.

Marian McPartland is the host of the longest-running jazz program in the history of network radio. Her Piano Jazz has also enjoyed the longest run of any entertainment series on NPR. In March 1998, she celebrated her 80th birthday on stage at New York’s Town Hall. Billy Taylor, himself the host of an NPR jazz series, Billy Taylor’s Jazz from the Kennedy Center, kept up the musical action as a parade of Marian’s friends came to perform and wish her well: pianists Tommy Flanagan, Jacky Terrasson and Ray Bryant, bassists Christian McBride and Bill Crow, drummers Joe Morello, Grady Tate and Lewis Nash, and trumpeter Harry (“Sweets”) Edison, among others. Joe Morello and Bill Crowe, two members of the trio she organized nearly 50 years ago, were sidemen for several tunes.

The program, reminiscence blended with performance and McPartland biography, was broadcast nationally by NPR. It was, you might say, “A Grand Night for Swinging,” the tune Marian and Billy Taylor played to open the show.

Assuming it might require considerable time to recover from the rigors of being the performance star of your 80th birthday extravaganza, I waited some months before phoning Ms. McPartland to ask what she was doing to rest up.

“You mean this month?” she said briskly. “We’ve got a live Piano Jazz show at the New York Museum of Television and Radio in a few days. The guest is Cassandra Wilson. We do these live with an audience occasionally. I’ve done one with Dave Brubeck and another with Tommy Flanagan.

“Then I’ll be at the White House, performing with Wynton Marsalis, Billy Taylor, Max Roach and some others. I was there once before, when Duke [Ellington] had his party. It was wonderful! This is a different sort of affair, talking about what jazz is. I told them I’d like to be allowed to play some. I don’t want to talk about it. So I don’t know how it’s all going to shake out.”

(As it happens, the occasion was marked by the participation of the host, President Clinton, and his guest, Vaclav Havel, president of the Czech Republic and a jazz enthusiast. Havel talked informally about the importance of jazz during the years of his country’s occupation by the Germans and Russians.)

I knew that in addition to playing at Washington’s Blues Alley and other clubs, she had once performed at a special private concert at the Supreme Court and, more recently, at the National Gallery of Art. “That’s a pretty full . . .” I began.

“I’ll also be doing two days at Birdland this month,” she went on, “with Joe Morello and Bill Crow. They’re both 70! There’ll be a live recording at Birdland for the Concord label.

“Oh yes, I’m scheduled to perform in a few days in something called ‘Quincy Jones Presents the Montreux Jazz Festival in Central Park.'”

“Is that all?” I asked.

“I almost forgot, I have another open-air concert at Princeton at the end of the month.”

At this point there was silence, then her voice returned. “Excuse me,” she said. “They’re talking about me on the radio. It’s something from the Chicago Jazz Festival. They’re using part of the show I did for their broadcast. I’m not there, of course, but it sounds as if I’m in Chicago. Funny.”

Not surprising: Marian McPartland in several places at once.

In the small town of Port Washington, N.Y., where she lives when not on the road, she plays a jazz concert each year at the local high school. She also plays in schools when she is on the road, in the cities where club dates and concerts have taken her. “About eight years ago,” she says, “I suggested we have an annual jazz concert here so we could make a little money to start a jazz record collection at the high school. And we’ve done it! Not all the students have gone into music, of course, but they’re involved in some way. The band members gave a pizza party for me a few months ago. We all sat around, and they talked about what they were going to do in college.

“A good local studio records the annual concert live, then puts it out on a CD for the kids. I think it’s given them confidence. They’re more seriously involved in jazz events now. I think it was a good thing to do.” In 1986 the International Association of Jazz Educators inducted Marian into its Hall of Fame.

This number and variety of events crammed into a single month is not unusual in the life of Marian McPartland, who has always gone full-tilt at her profession — in a determined, quiet and organized fashion.

When the Marian McPartland Trio opened at the Hickory House, a popular steak restaurant on New York’s 52nd Street, on Feb. 2, 1952, she had been playing the piano professionally for 15 years. Leonard Feather, the influential critic for Down Beat, reviewed her opening: “Marian McPartland has three strikes against her: she’s English, white and a woman.” Commenting on Feather’s pessimism 23 years later, in an essay entitled “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby,” she writes, “Somehow this seemed like an accolade! It made me feel that I was doing something unusual and special.”

Her agent, Larry Bennett, told her that with luck her engagement at the Hickory House might last for two months. In fact, she remained a full year, after which she continued as a featured performer at the club for nearly a decade.

During this period she made dozens of recordings, played concerts and club dates, appeared hundreds of times on radio and TV, and toured throughout the country, launching one of the most remarkably productive careers in the history of jazz.

While businessmen chomped their steaks and cigars, waiters slithered over the sawdust-covered floors and undergraduates crowded along the bar, the Trio played in half-hour shifts, six nights a week from 9 to 3–including Christmas and New Year’s Eve–entertaining a generation of musicians, composers and performers of American popular song: Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Alec Wilder, Cy Coleman and Billy Strayhorn were all regular visitors, along with pianist Bud Powell, guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli and drummer Kenny Clarke. Oscar Peterson sat in occasionally–and, from time to time, Ellington himself. Ellington, who frequently ate his dinner here, was the star. Marian learned several of his compositions and would play them when he walked in. “Once,” she recalls, “he performed one of his early compositions, ‘Soda Fountain Rag,’ and another time he played ‘Night Creatures.’ I sat at the bar spellbound.”

In her affectionate essay, “Halcyon Days, Remembering the Hickory House,” Marian (most people, friends and strangers alike, call her “Marian,” the way people refer to Julia Child as “Julia,” whether they know her or not) writes how such people “were unknowingly contributing to my musical development. I wouldn’t call it ‘nurturing’ exactly, but their encouragement was wonderful.” As most of them became her life-long friends, it is probably fair to say that her influence upon the musicians she met at the Hickory House was part of a two-way exchange.

The Hickory House days were important in many ways: the Trio began to record (on the Savoy label), and NBC Radio scheduled half-hour “remotes” from the restaurant, aired nationally three times a week. Having a national audience opened opportunities for many successful tours. Garry Moore, a Hickory House habitue, invited Marian onto his NBC Morning Show, where she appeared for several weeks. Steve Allen came in frequently (with his wife-to-be, Jayne Meadows), sat in with the Trio, and occasionally brought them to his popular late-night TV program.

Marian’s radio experience, like so many dimensions of her career, began while she was playing at the Hickory House. In addition to the NBC broadcasts she appeared on what was then WNEW, a 15-minute radio show featuring Al (“Jazzbo”) Collins, playing piano and talking about music. Later, in the ’60s, she hosted a series on public radio station WBAI.

“I just wanted to do something,” she remembers, “because at that time jazz was being taken over by people like Chubby Checker and Bill Haley. So I called Chris Albertson at WBAI and said I’d like to come up there and play some records and talk about jazz. It was a good grounding for me because I did a lot of interviewing with people like Herbie Hancock, Benny Goodman and Bill Evans” (many of whom would appear with her again on Piano Jazz 20 years later).

As any veteran saloon piano player will tell you, places like the Hickory House seldom develop an ambiance conducive to a full appreciation of musical nuance. The Popkin family’s eatery was no exception. The trio was squeezed into a small elevated space inside an oval bar, Marian at the piano, with her sidemen behind her. The musicians’ lighting competed with brighter illumination for the steaks in a large case near the kitchen. It was a sportsman’s bar, with a high ceiling and paintings of boxers and baseball stars lining the dark mahogany walls. Marian describes it as having “a race-track atmosphere,” not one you’d immediately associate with jazz. Noisy but, as I recall it, welcoming and genial.

Understandably, Marian has some specific memories of the noises that “intermingled” with the music, as she says: the owner arguing with his press agent, the headwaiter shouting instructions to his troops, John Popkin behind the bar, ringing up bills in the midst of quiet ballads. “If I had known how to improvise ‘free’ music as I do now,” she has written many years later, “I would have composed a piece incorporating all the different sounds. . . . It was the last of the great jazz clubs on 52nd Street and like home to me. I’ll always remember it with love.”

One evening, Marian’s uncle, Sir Cyril Dyson, walked in. He was the mayor of Windsor, near her birthplace in England and was visiting New York for a conference. Between sets Marian joined him as he scanned the room darkly, noting with particular disapproval the stage where she had been playing, surrounded by several hundred bottles of liquor. Completing his visual reconnaissance he asked solemnly, “Does your father know what you are doing?” In the circumstances it was not an altogether odd question: 20 years earlier, her father had offered her 1,000 pounds if she would give up a sudden decision to join a vaudeville act, leaving London’s prestigious Guildhall School of Music, where she had been an award-winning student. She turned him down.

She was born Margaret Marian Turner in Slough, a southeastern extension of London. Her mother played Chopin waltzes enthusiastically and Marian began to pick out tunes on the family piano when she was three. By the time she was a teenager she was playing Bach and Beethoven eight hours a day. As a schoolgirl she received good marks in singing, violin and piano. Although one of her teachers was moved to report, “This child is unmanageable,” she managed acceptance into the Guildhall School, where she studied piano and composition, creating her own “Valse Gracieuse” for which she was awarded the Chairman’s Pianoforte Prize.

Then, at the beginning of her third full year at the Guildhall, she left abruptly, having auditioned successfully (and surreptitiously, changing her name to “Marian Page”) for a place on a four-piano vaudeville act, “Billy Mayerl and his Claviers,” an ensemble that toured throughout England under the direction of Mayerl, himself, a popular pianist, composer and promoter.

(The name “Page” was, she explains, based upon her mother’s maiden name, Janet Payne. It was taken in order not to cause her shocked parents the distress of having a Turner daughter on the stage. She kept the name for some years, until discovering, when she arrived in the U.S., that there was an American “Marian Page” playing jazz piano in New York. By this time her married name was McPartland.)

“When I was going to the Guildhall,” she says, “I thought that I might become a concert pianist. But that went out the window because I was so involved with jazz. I was 19 or 20 when I began to tour with the Claviers, very green and callow. I was determined to go. It’s how I got out of the house. I suppose it was pretty nervy. My parents wanted me to stay and get married, be respectable. My father wanted me to be in a bank or become a nurse. I don’t think they realized I had above-average musical intelligence, but I must have. Anyway, that’s how it started. From that moment on I was really on the road.”

Her parents may have also misjudged the influence of popular music on their daughter, who spent countless hours listening to it on BBC radio. Once she fell heir to a splendid collection of jazz records owned by a boyfriend of her younger sister, Joyce. Here was the mainstream music of Teddy Wilson, Fats Waller and Ellington, as well as the infinitely varied harmonies of Alec Wilder. Although forbidden to attend live performances of American musicians visiting London, she listened constantly to their recordings. Many eventually would become guests on her Piano Jazz.

In the early 1940s, Marian performed for for allied forces in England and then landed in Normandy soon after the allied invasion. She followed the GIs into France and Belgium, playing for soldiers at the front lines. Entertaining the troops, she worked with Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, Celeste Holm, Dinah Shore and Fred Astaire. Astaire (“What a trooper,” she says) was part of her unit for two weeks, singing and dancing, accompanied by an accordionist. Remembering the primitive conditions of life on the road in World War II, she talks with bemusement of meeting Dinah Shore for the first time–sitting side-by-side in an outdoor portable john.

On a cold day in February 1946, still performing with the USO, she married Jimmy McPartland in Aachen, Germany. “The army was wonderful,” Marian remembers. “It gave us a car and a week’s honeymoon in Brussels.” Two months later they left for Chicago to meet Jimmy’s family. McPartland, who had been transferred from combat to Special Forces, was a Dixieland cornetist, already well known in the U.S. Someone reviewing Marian’s career recently made the observation that when Jimmy McPartland replaced Bix Beiderbecke in the Wolverines, Margaret Marian Turner was six years old. It was a hectic, on-again-off-again relationship during which they were together much of the time. Divorced in the ’60, the McPartlands were remarried in 1991, not long before Jimmy’s death.

Marian recently told an interviewer that she was trying to write an essay about Jimmy and that it was very difficult. “I really miss him terribly,” she said, “even more than I thought I would.”

At the age of 28, Marian joined Jimmy’s Dixieland quintet, playing in Chicago as well as on the east coast, especially in Boston and Philadelphia. “We did a lot of jazz concerts in those days,” she says. “I remember especially the ones at Childs Paramount and the Stuyvesant Casino. Eventually they came to New York where Jimmy helped her land an engagement at the Embers, a celebrated venue for jazz musicians. There she played with two excellent jazz men, Don Lamond on drums and Eddie Safranski on bass. Soon she organized the Marian McPartland Trio and was booked, auspiciously, into the Hickory House.

In 1950 Marian played a concert at George Wein’s jazz club, Storyville, in Boston. Although the piano was out of tune, the performance went well and Wein’s assistant sent a tape of it to the president of Savoy Records, Herman Lubinsky, who, without bothering to draw up a royalty agreement, produced a record from it. This was an important moment in Marian’s career, not withstanding the absence of a contract. Years later, writing about the beginnings of her association with Lubinsky and Savoy–and the first of her dozens of recordings–she concedes it was a major step. Concerning the missing contract, she adds, “My naivete was not repeated.” A classic disc from the Savoy years, one that introduced her playing to a large and entirely new audience, is “Marian McPartland at the Hickory House,” for which she wrote the liner notes. Eventually she moved from Savoy to Capitol Records and then during a slow period to her own label, Halcyon. She later came to Concord, where she has remained 18 years.

One of her recent releases (on Concord Jazz Alliance) is “Just Friends.” In some sense it is a CD extension of the Piano Jazz series. Here she plays duets with Dave Brubeck, Tommy Flanagan, Gene Harris, Geri Allen, Renee Rosnes and George Shearing. Public Radio Music Source, the music reference and sales service, now lists more than 50 available McPartland records, 36 of them drawn from Piano Jazz. A Music Source representative estimates that this places her in the top 5 percent of contemporary jazz performers distributed by the company. (The entire Piano Jazz series is archived in the Rodgers and Hammerstein Collection at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York and the Library of Congress.)

Of special interest to those who follow Marian McPartland’s career closely are her own compositions. Her best-known standards include “Twilight World” (lyrics by Johnny Mercer, sung by Tony Bennett) and “In the Days of Our Love” (lyrics by Peggy Lee, sung by Cleo Laine). In 1997 Concord released “Silent Pool,” an album containing a dozen of her compositions arranged by New Zealand pianist Alan Broadbent. Here she is accompanied by strings in what one enthusiastic critic has called “the late harvest of a lifetime’s musical wisdom.” Her last composition, “Threnody,” was written for her good friend, pianist Mary Lou Williams.

Over the years, few in her profession have written so wisely about jazz and its performers. Her essays–many of them technical, written for other musicians–have appeared in a large number of publications, especially Down Beat. The writing began early in her life with husband, Jimmy. She accompanied him to a jazz concert in Paris where he played while she watched from the wings. On impulse, she wired Down Beat, asking the editors if they could use a description of the event. They could. It was her first feature. Many followed. Much later, reflecting upon the beginning in Paris, she mused, “Maybe I just wanted to be noticed.”

In 1987 Oxford University Press published a collection of her essays, All in Good Time, written from 1960 to 1983. In addition to a personal memoir and a description of her years at the Hickory House, the book consists of portraits of a dozen musicians she has known well; among them, Paul Desmond, Mary Lou Williams, Joe Morello, Benny Goodman, Bill Evans and Alec Wilder. Her prose style is spare and straightforward, much like her conversation. In these uniformly admiring profiles she confirms her intention, stated in the book’s preface, “to show my appreciation for some of my favorite musicians.” In the essays she frequently reveals as much about herself as her subjects. (There are plans to publish an expanded edition of this book that will include four new chapters, one of them the long-awaited profile of Jimmy McPartland.)

One of the most interesting among these personal observations of talented people is a description of her great friend, Alec Wilder, published initially in 1976. She first came to know Wilder during her younger years in England, listening to a recording of his compelling, infinitely varied “Octets” (harpsichord, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, oboe, bass, drums and flute), which she quite accurately describes as having “style, elegance, tenderness and humor.” (A subsequent recording of the “Octets” was conducted by another Wilder admirer, Frank Sinatra.)

McPartland and Wilder met for the first time in 1960 when he sat at the Hickory House bar, pipe in one hand, books in the other, dressed in what she calls “his uniform” (worn tweed jacket, gray slacks and loafers), listening intently. Over the years, Wilder, who composed memorable popular favorites such as “I’ll Be Around” and “When We’re Young,” among dozens of other songs and chamber-music pieces, created many compositions for Marian and was unquestionably one of the strongest influences on her musical style.

“I’ve always gravitated toward harmonically intricate tunes with tenderness and romantic lyrics,” she writes, “and his songs had them.” The first of his many “musical gifts” to her was “Jazz Waltz for a Friend” which, she writes, “was deceptively simple to play but hard to memorize and to improvise on. Many of Alec’s pieces are that way. This one became a part of her trio’s repertoire.

“Emotionally he is very complex,” she writes, in what may be the grandest understatement in her book. For this was a legendary curmudgeon and brilliant eccentric who made his home for 40 years in New York’s Algonquin Hotel. “He makes wild swings from an almost child-like gaiety to deep depression . . . a combination of puritanical, old-fashioned ways, yet raunchy, hip and funny.” Her description of his important book American Popular Song, is as apt now as it was when it was first published in 1975: “searching, detailed, knowledgeable and often critically humorous . . . a godsend to students of popular music and laymen alike as well as a joy to musicians.”

She observes the influence of Delius on his compositions (“like English folk music”). This most urban of men was “passionately fond of the countryside and the peace of sleepy villages. His idol was Bach,” she continues, “a clue to his devotion to uninterrupted momentum of the left hand. To me his music transcends all fashions and fads.” (One of her most popular CDS is “Marian McPartland Plays the Music of Alec Wilder.”)

In a postscript to her original essay on Wilder, written after his death in 1980, she says, “I miss Alec. I miss his outrageous sense of humor, his tirades against bad music and fast food, his love of nature and compassion for all wild creatures, the books he read and then gave to his friends. He had many gifts to give and he was generous with all of them–his time, his support and encouragement. But his greatest gift and the most lasting one of all was his music.”
In a characteristic passage in one of the essays, Marian describes her dinners at the French Shack in New York with Wilder and Bill Evans, another special friend. She remarks upon their “brilliant conversation,” commenting deferentially that she sometimes managed “to put in my two cents.”

She might have been describing her interviews, even some of the duets, in her Piano Jazz series where she invites her guests to be expansive, to be their best, by making them feel comfortable in the ambiance she has created. As Bill Crow has remarked, “Marian has never had an ego problem.”

Her essay on Wilder was written soon after he had helped to arrange a TV special, produced by South Carolina ETV, featuring Mabel Mercer and Bobby Short.

The program, broadcast nationally by PBS, encouraged its producers to believe a radio series featuring Wilder would likewise be successful. Thus American Popular Song was created, a series later broadcast by National Public Radio.

These entertaining and instructive programs that included some of the most talented performers in America, gave rise, in turn, to Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz, a circumstance in which I was able to play a small role. During the ’70s I was working for CPB and managed to visit a recording of one of the Wilder programs (in a house overlooking a small lake near Columbia, S.C.). Wilder presided, of course. Bobby Short was the featured performer.

The memorable session was still in my thoughts a few weeks later, when I dropped by the Carlyle Hotel in New York to hear Marian McPartland playing in the Carlyle’s Bemelman Bar. Seated just behind her was Alec Wilder, reading and writing letters. I suspect it was the proximity of these two people, both of whom I greatly admired, that suggested the idea of a piano jazz series.

Too shy to talk to either of them, I later wrote to Marian, suggesting that I might be able to find some initial support from CPB and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) for the project if she were interested. She was.

I was not the only one who thought that piano jazz would make a fine follow-up to the American Popular Song series. William Hay, then head of South Carolina’s eight-station public radio network and the executive producer of the 40-program Wilder series, was another. Wilder had written Hay a persuasive letter detailing his concept for a piano jazz series, hosted by Marian. Loonis McGlohon, pianist for the Wilder series and a good friend of Marian, also urged such a series. Hay eventually talked with Marian in New York, with me in Washington, and 20 years later the programs continue to be the success we all hoped for. The initial support was small, hardly enough to begin, but few financial grants have been so handsomely productive.

With such an ungenerous start-up budget the producers looked for the most inexpensive recording space available. What they finally found was the showroom of the Baldwin Piano Co. on Seventh Avenue in New York. Marian explains: “The guy who was then head of the Baldwin Co. in New York, Jack Roman, was keen on the show and very helpful. The showroom was actually a great place to play and record. There were all those wonderful pianos. I’d walk around and choose two of them to be placed side-by-side. The engineer, who came up from South Carolina in a truck, would set up his equipment in a broom closet or the ladies’ room.” Dick Phipps produced the series in its early days. William Hay, the executive producer, remembers dragging in carpeting material to improve the acoustics. “It was right next to a fire station,” says Hay, “and every minute we expected the bell to go off, but it didn’t. The second 13 programs and those that followed were produced at the RCA Studios on 6th Avenue, much more convenient.”

These days one of the things that keeps Marian on the move is that many of the programs are recorded in locations across the country and around the world–Toronto, London, Los Angeles and elsewhere–“where the talent is,” says Marian.

For years the series was largely supported by the Exxon Corp. In 1994 the National Endowment for the Arts, another backer, cut back its grants and Exxon dropped out. Undaunted, the producers swiftly organized a group called Friends of Piano Jazz to keep the show on the air. The “Friends” is composed of people who believe the series is “a national treasure,” including Tony Bennett, Dave Brubeck, William F. Buckley, Jr., Willis Conover, Branford and Wynton Marsalis, Dudley Moore, Gene Shalit and Margaret Whiting.
“There was never a question about the format,” says Marian. “At the start Bill Hay asked me how I would do it and I said, ‘Two pianos.’ It just seemed the easiest way to go. I wouldn’t have to bother about lining up a whole band. It was, and still is, simple, although we now include horn players, vocalists and God knows what all. But it’s still the same format: I talk, the guest plays, I play, we play together, we talk.”

Describing the series and the recent CD, “Just Friends,” one New York critic wrote that what makes the radio series a “quietly extraordinary phenomenon” is the empathy and space she gives her guest musicians, saying that what this requires is “a stronger ego than you think. Not bigger. Stronger.”

Shari Hutchinson, producer of Piano Jazz since 1986, says, “We try and walk into it fresh every time, making some guesses about how talkative a guest will be. Sometimes they . . . would rather talk with their music.” One of her favorite programs featured Dizzy Gillespie. “He was a dynamo,” she says. “You never knew what he was going to do. There was such spontaneity and a love for the music . . .”

“I have a bunch of tunes written down,” Marian says, “but a lot of times the ideas will go off in another direction, depending on what the guests want to talk about or how comfortable they are. We don’t really rehearse. Maybe [the guest] will play a tune to get the feel of a piano or to test me on something. Mostly we just pick a tune and away we go. Jazz musicians are very willing to share. Doing Piano Jazz forces me to listen, or re-listen, to a lot of things. It’s educational all around.”

The program with pianist-composer Bill Evans remains her favorite. “There are plenty of others,” she says, “Oscar Peterson, Brubeck, Chick Corea. But I suppose the fact that Bill is gone [he died in 1980], and there is something special about him, helps to make it the most meaningful program.”

William Hay, who grew up in a musical family and produced countless music series for South Carolina Public Radio before his retirement in 1991, says this “very opinionated Englishwoman” develops with her guests a uniquely close rapport. He recalls her working with pianist Dick Hyman: “Beginning from scratch they spun this eight-minute, Debussy-like improvisation that was absolutely exquisite, out of thin air and their personal artistry.

Murray Horwitz is the v.p. of cultural programming at NPR. He has worked with Marian for years and was one of the producers of her Town Hall birthday program. “Marian,” he says, “knows how to stay out of her guests’ way, be properly assertive with her own musical ideas and, when she has a really good partner, can achieve a musical blend that makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts. It’s a special skill, tough to do, and she does it very well. Radio is not the easiest sonic medium in the world. You’ve got to really know how to do it. Only a few master pianists can do this, and she is one of them.”

Her work at the piano is now better than ever, Horwitz believes. “No one,” he says, “has a harmonic imagination like Marian. She has pared down her style so that her harmonic excursions are very clear. She tells wonderful musical stories in a plain fashion.”

There is a remarkable consistency in Marian McPartland’s descriptions of her fellow musicians and her piano duets with them–sometimes leading, sometimes following, but always showing them to their best advantage. It also appears in the often-observed calming effect she seems to have upon her programs’ guests. Perhaps it is not surprising that the name she chose for her recording company was Halcyon, the ancient Greeks’ mythical bird who makes her nest upon the ocean, calming the waves.

A special Piano Jazz program in April [2000] will usher the series into its 20th year. In addition to Marian, the celebration will include the hosts of other NPR jazz shows: Billy Taylor, Nancy Wilson and Branford Marsalis. And Marian will join in celebration at the Public Radio Conference in May.

Piano Jazz is now carried by some 260 public radio stations across the country, where it is heard weekly throughout the year. William Hay believes this kind of once-a-week continuity is central to the series’ viability. “All public radio stations,” he says, “have rather primitive traffic [i.e., scheduling] departments. They’d rather plug something in and know it’s there forever and ever and ever. Once you drop it off the vine you have to start from scratch to build your audience again. So all these years NPR, bless their hearts, has mounted a year-round weekly series of new and previously produced programs, which have maintained the audience.” About half of the programs each season are return engagements.

Reflecting upon nearly two decades of weekly programs that have brought new talent to public attention, and reminded audiences of many splendid musicians who were nearly forgotten, Marian says, “Piano Jazz has made me feel I have a place in the world.” It is a place she seems altogether disinclined to give up. “I feel that working is the best thing that anybody can be doing,” she said recently, “especially when you’re doing something you like, giving other people some work, and can generally be helpful . . . I certainly wouldn’t want to sit in the backyard and plant bulbs.”

Related stories and links

Piano Jazz host dies at age 95, 2013.

On NPR.org: about McPartland’s series and recorded programs.

Grammy academy salutes McPartland for the ‘timeless legacy’ of her music.

Dame at jazz crossroads: At 85, McPartland keeps Piano Jazz engaging

McPartland was one of 57 jazz figures pictured in a famous 1958 photo shot in Harlem by Art Kane. [Portion showing her in front row.]

Marian McPartland’s Jazz World book published, 2003.

Clare Hansson gives extended overview of McPartland’s career.

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