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Marian McPartland: Living Through the History

Maxwell Chandler By

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Holding the pose took a minute or two, but getting everybody together took hours.
Marian McPartlandMarian McPartland, whose personal artistic history is deeply entwined with that of jazz, continues writing, touring and educating. Following her muse, she has encountered a who's who of jazz while leaving her own indelible mark on the music. Her radio program, Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz, is the longest running show on National Public Radio, and she continues to tape new episodes.

At the age of 91 she's still going strong with Piano Jazz, as well as periodic performances and composing new music, including the ambitious symphonic piece, "A Portrait of Rachel Carson."

Chapter Index

  1. Discovery
  2. Vaudeville
  3. Jimmy McPartland
  4. Boys' Club
  5. Recording
  6. The Sixties
  7. Piano Jazz
  8. Still Going Strong


All About Jazz: You studied classical music at the Guildhall school of music in London. Was it during this time or earlier that you first encountered jazz?

Marian McPartland: It was much earlier because I started playing the piano at home, when I was about three, and I started to hear jazz on the BBC. Then when I was in my early teens I started to play jazz and I had a boyfriend who brought records over to my house, so I listened to everything—Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Fats Waller, everybody. I have been going on ever since.

AAJ: Looking back and listening to any of your early jazz inspirations now, has your opinion of the artists/recordings changed?

MM: No, I don't probably play in the same style as I did then but the artists are just as great. I was lucky to meet Duke Ellington later when I was at the Hickory House. He and I became very good friends, and I was with Benny Goodman for a while. I knew all the people that I listened to as a kid, and then when the war came I went with the USO to France and Belgium. That's where I met my husband, Jimmy. We were married over there and that was my first trip to America, after I had married Jimmy.

Marian McPartlandAAJ: Regarding jazz versus your classical studies, had you seen it as an "either/or" proposition?

MM: I never had an "either/or" thing. Actually when I went to the Guildhall, I was already playing jazz, sort of for fun, and the thinking at the Guildhall was that I might become a concert pianist. But of course that never happened because I was offered a job playing with a four piano act. It wasn't exactly jazz but it was sort of "Pop jazz." I never really went back to classical music.

AAJ: Like the composer Alexander Scriabin and few others, you are a synesthete (associating different musical keys with colors). Have you always experienced music this way?

MM: A couple of jazz musicians I know have the same thing; Jim Hall was one and he and I used to talk at different times about how we associate certain keys with a certain color. But I never knew that Scriabin did that. I have always had it in my head. I never felt like talking about it for a long time, but it was there.



AAJ: You ended up leaving school to tour with Billy Mayerl's Claviers, which was a four piano vaudeville act. What do you remember of your hiring and job description?

MM: I was thrilled. My parents weren't. They were hoping I wouldn't go, but of course I did go. If I hadn't, my life would be very different because I never really went home again. I was always doing something on the road and then the war came. I met Jimmy doing USO camp shows in Belgium and then came to New York after the war ended.

AAJ: You performed as Marian Page?

MM: I started out as Marian Page, which was sort of an alias because my parents weren't too thrilled with me. Then when I got to New York, I found out there was already a Marian Page who played in New York at the Monkey Bar. So I very quickly became Marian McPartland which, as a name, has stood me in good stead ever since.

Marian McPartlandAAJ: Your parents were not pleased with your choice. Given all that you went on to do, did they ever come around to approving?

MM: Yeah, they did, especially when I would get write-ups and reviews, records, all the good things that would happen to me. They were very pleased about all that.

AAJ: Your father offered you one thousand pounds to stay in school. Was there any temptation? Was there an implicit understanding in the offer that you drop jazz altogether?

MM: Yes he did. He didn't want me to go on that trip with the four pianos. He wanted me to stay at the Guildhall. Of course, I didn't take the money.


Jimmy McPartland

AAJ: While entertaining troops during World War II you met your soon to be husband, cornetist Jimmy McPartland. He was steeped more in traditional Dixieland jazz and you more progressive. Was there any sort of cross pollination artistically?

MM: Well, I had always been able to play—he hated the word—Dixieland (and I did too). But I could play all those tunes. I listened to a lot of those players of the day. I could play with him and enjoy it very much, but then when bebop came along I could easily switch to that. Still to this day, I love to play with a Dixieland band—not full time, but once in a while it's fun. And of course I enjoyed playing with Jimmy. I guess I am still a middle of the road bebopper. I don't know how to describe myself.

AAJ: Eventually you moved stateside [1946] first to Chicago, then New York (1949). Did either location directly affect your artistic identity?

MM: I think I just got better, being in New York and getting this steady job at the Hickory House, which lasted about ten years. During that time, I think I learned much more about how to play, and I feel I am still learning. I don't think you ever stop learning.

Marian McPartlandAAJ: Was it at this point you began to record?

MM: We did record in Chicago, but then when we got to New York I was signed to Capitol and made four records with them. Actually, I then later started my own record company, Halcyon. Then I went with Concord; they took all my Halcyon recordings and put them out on Concord.

AAJ: Had you preplanned the size of the ensemble and format you wanted for recording?

MM: Oh, sure. I certainly knew what I was going to do. The first record I made for my own company was a duo with bass and piano. It sounded so good at the time, and still does years later. I went on to record with other people: Dave McKenna, Alec Wilder and many others.


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