A Blue Lake Public Radio interview with jazz great Marian McPartland invariably begins with the subject of Tom Pletcher, the former Montague, MI, area jazz cornetist whose father Stew Pletcher played trumpet with Red Norvo's big band of the 1930's. Tom Pletcher, who now lives in Florida, and pianist Dick Hyman just released If Bix Played Gershwin
(Arbors Records) which McPartland mentioned she's heard on the radio. She's appearing at Dick Hyman's 92nd Street "Y" series in New York just before performing in Sutton's Bay as detailed at National Public Radio's "Piano Jazz" web site
Since Tom Pletcher is an interpreter of the Bix Beiderbecke, Bobby Hackett and Bunny Berigan tradition who can go his own way, Marian knew him through her late husband, trumpeter Jimmy McPartland. They're long time friends. In addition to their friendship, Pletcher underwrote the first "Piano Jazz" broadcasts over Blue Lake Public Radio in 1983; four years after the series began. "Piano Jazz" is still being heard at the same time, 10 a.m. Saturday morning, over Blue Lake Public Radio.
Moreover, a collective of early jazz players featuring Pletcher called "Sons of Bix" opened for a McPartland performance during a 1980's edition of the Blue Lake Jazz Festival. Unfortunately it rained and Blue Lake's Stewart Shell in that era had no extended roof for the audience, so the concert was moved into the summer camp's pole barn cafeteria where an upright spinet piano awaited the Grand Dame of Jazz. Of course, she gathered all the kids around her and made the most of it.
The second time Marian McPartland met Blue Lake Public Radio for an interview was in the mid-1980's when the Marian McPartland Trio played Hope College's Great Performances Series in Holland, MI. Sitting across from each other at a wood library table in the basement of Dimnent Chapel, tape recorder between us, I asked her if she'd ever consider Cecil Taylor for "Piano Jazz."
McPartland shook her bracelets up her arm, "What? And he comes in plays one tune then, "Thank you Cecil," and goodbye?" So I mentioned those solo ballad pieces from the 1970's. She thought about it and mused about Mary Lou Williams' encounter with the avant-garde standard bearer Cecil Taylor.
Well, a few years later, she did it. Cecil Taylor appeared on "Piano Jazz." When we spoke sometime later in the decade I reminded her of that interview at Hope. "Oh, so you're the one," said with that salty laugh. "What did you think of that?" In a sense it was a vindication of Mary Lou Williams musical principles of individuality in improvisation as Marian McPartland and Cecil Taylor created fascinating music together.
In any case, whenever you cross Marian McParland's path she's going to hip you to someone you may never heard before, or haven't heard enough since. And that doesn't mean only "jazz stars." Through the years Chicagoans Judy Roberts and Earma Thompson have come on the radar through her word; or more recently University of Michigan pianist Ellen Rowe, who appeared with McPartland at the Interlochen Arts Academy near Traverse City a few years ago. There's classical pianist Ruth Loredo as well, who teamed up with McPartland and Dick Hyman for a three piano concert the last time McPartland came to West Michigan.
In addition to her concert in Sutton's Bay, McPartland returns to Northern Lower Michigan later this summer for a concert in Petoskey, MI. See www.crookedtree.org .
The following conversation was recorded for broadcast over Blue Lake Public Radio, the fine arts broadcast service of Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp, on Wednesday, June 30, 2004. McPartland spoke from her home in New York to Blue Lake Public Radio jazz director Lazaro Vega.
Marian McPartland: Well, I'm bringing what I like to call my Chicago rhythm section: They both live there and those are the guys I use when I'm in the mid-west. They're going to drive up to Sutton's Bay. I've never been there. Is it nice?
Lazaro Vega: Heaven on earth, Marian, it's beautiful. Like stepping into a post card.
MM: It's a rather hurried date because two days previously I'll be playing with Dick Hyman at the 92nd Street "Y." Then I have to leave the next day for Sutton's Bay. I like to get up there a day ahead of time. So, anyway, I'm looking forward to it. I guess the guys will drive up at their leisure.
Jim Cox is the bassist, and Charles Braugham is the drummer. He always gets called Charlie Brown, but its B-r-a-u-g-h-a-m.
LV: Oh, Charles Braughm. I've heard of him. He's a very steady player.
MM: He is, he's very steady, and a very nice guy. I really love playing with both of them whenever I'm in Chicago or somewhere near enough to hire them. I think they're going to get a van so they don't have to worry about getting a bass on the airplane: it's always such a drag.
(Ed: At this point the conversation diverges into a discussion of the Sutton's Bay Jazz Festival presenters, Harry and Piper Goldson. See clarinetist Harry Goldson's web site ).