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Marian McPartland: Queen of Piano Jazz

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I try to delve into the background of the musicians... I think it will be important down the road, years from now when people want to research them.
Marian McPartland's bracelet keeps rattling. I can't hear it from my perch behind the soundboard but Shari Hutchinson the producer of Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz is picking it up on the recording.

"It's supposed to stay up above my watch. It keeps working its way down," McPartland explains from the other side of the glass. "We're going to have to find a new use for duct tape," Hutchinson teases.

The guest today is pianist/composer Jacky Terrasson. He sits side by side with McPartland, each at their own grand piano, each representing a different generation of jazz yet both sharing an intimate camaraderie. The duo delve into the standard "Days of Wine and Roses", followed by a free improvisation, then Terrasson surprises McPartland by playing "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes".

"It's got such a beautiful melody. There are so few beautiful melodies written now," she explained later that night over the phone. "There's more of an accent on technique, and playing a million notes. I'm prejudiced towards earlier music I guess."

With her nationally syndicated weekly radio show (carried by 243 stations), McPartland showcases new music, while glorifying the old. The 58-minute segments usually feature a few standards mixed with a couple of the guest's originals. Entertaining anecdotes about their personal lives, musical technique, and memories fill the time between tunes.

"I find it very interesting to talk about their lives," she said. "Today was interesting because Jacky is such an open person and his ideas on music are so unusual. But every guest brings something special to the show. You have a person like Ray Charles sitting in the room and you're able to talk and chat as if you're in front of the fireplace."

Piano Jazz began 24 years ago when composer Alec Wilder recommended McPartland to National Public Radio. His series American Popular Song, which featured well-known vocalists like Tony Bennett, ended, and they were looking for something to replace it. "He always denied [recommending me]," said McPartland. "He was someone that liked to do something good for people but not be recognized for it. I knew he did it because somebody sent me a letter by him years later saying 'Marian McPartland would be a perfect person to replace my show.'"

Piano Jazz' instrumentation expanded in the ‘80s. "When the show began it was only pianists," explained Hutchinson. "Now we feature any kind of musician or vocalist - from vibraphones to horns to drums." She also said that the variety of artists has broadened to include those not necessarily associated with jazz. A segment with Don Fagen of Steely Dan aired recently. Willie Nelson has been on the show, and Bruce Hornsby and Clint Eastwood are upcoming guests.

Hutchinson and McPartland work together to book artists for the Peabody Award winning show. Drawing from McPartland's pool of pals in the jazz world, musicians she admired as a girl in England, or young, up-and-coming artists, they always maintain a variety. "Marian is wonderful about keeping her ear to the ground about great new artists," Hutchinson said.

In January, 23-year-old singer, pianist and Grammy winner Norah Jones appeared on the show. Jones and McPartland made fast friends. "She did a perfectly beautiful show. She was very charming and we got along well, there's no generation gap. We've communicated a few times since then. When she went to Japan I left a message on her cellphone."

Last month a segment with trumpet player Dave Douglas aired. His record Soul on Soul - A Tribute to Mary Lou Williams caught McPartland's interest. "It didn't seem like a very likely combination. But he's so brilliant, he's got such crazy ideas. She was someone that played on the edge. She always seemed to be ahead of her time and I think that's what he liked about her."

Williams, coincidentally was the very first guest on Piano Jazz in 1979. She was also, along with McPartland, and Maxine Sullivan, one of three women in the famous "Great Day in Harlem" photograph.

"It was one of the most wonderful days," McPartland recalled. "I just feel bad that my husband Jimmy wouldn't get out of bed so he missed it. If I had known what I was getting into I would have absolutely thrown him out of the bed."

"I really didn't know it was going to be such a monumental event. People think of that time in the ‘50s as the Golden Age of jazz. People were mellower and good to each other. It was a wonderful occasion. I'm very proud and grateful to be in it."

Now McPartland, who celebrates her 85th birth-day this month at Birdland, is one in only a handful of surviving members. A few years ago photographer Gordon Parks took a photo for Life Magazine of the musicians who were still living. "We were told to stand where we had stood in the original picture. It was so sad because I had to stand alone. The people who stood on either side of me had died. It was very sad to have just the 11 of us [left from the shoot]."

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