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Marian McPartland at 90

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By Dan Morgenstern

There comes a time when it IS nice to mention a lady's age. Marian McPartland took the plunge in 1998, when she marked her 80th birthday with a concert at New York's Town Hall, a high point of which was the reunion with bassist Bill Crow and drummer Joe Morello, her trio partners at the Hickory House during most of the 1950s.

That's just one of the long runs in this extraordinary pianist, composer, teacher, writer and broadcaster's extraordinary career, itself of record length. And now that she's turned 90, on March 20, she's not about to rest on her featherbed of laurels. They include National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, Peabody, Deems Taylor and Down Beat Lifetime Achievement awards. In 1996, Marian was inducted into the American Jazz Hall of Fame, cosponsored by the New Jersey Jazz Society and Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies. She served as an elector (one of five from the jazz world) for a few years, back in the 1990s.

Born Marian Margaret Turner in the Borough of Slough, in the ceremonial county of Berkshire, of very proper British ancestry--her great uncle, Sir Frederick Tyson, was mayor of Windsor and played the cello--she grew up with music. Her mother was an accomplished classical pianist. Marian's first instrument was violin. After attending the Guildhall School of Music in London, she took the professional name of Marian Page and made her debut as part of a piano team touring with Billy Mayerl, a very popular pianist with a novelty ragtime flavor. (That I first learned from the late Dick Wellstood.) By 1944, both Marian Page and cornetist Jimmy McPartland, of Chicago fame, found themselves in Belgium entertaining the troops. They fell in love, soon married, and having performed for General Eisenhower in Paris, among other adventures, they moved to America in early l946. Jimmy resumed his career and Marian took the piano bench in his new quintet. Jimmy, by the way, was inducted into our Hall of Fame in 1991, just before he died. Luckily, Marian was able to tell him in time.

Around 1950 she was ready to do her own thing, in the trio format jazz pianists prefer. While Jimmy was more open than some of his contemporaries to new sounds, Marian had been listening well to what was happening on her instrument. Moving from the Embers to her perch at the Hickory House, which would become the last jazz outpost on 52nd Street and was a hangout favored by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, among other hipsters, Marian's musical and personal charm soon made itself felt, and her prolific recording career (over 160 sessions) took off; she also performed at such classy spots as Chicago's London House.

IN THE MID-'60s Marian did some radio work on WBAI-FM, a progressive station hospitable to jazz. (I made my own debut there as a radio disc jockey around this time.) Soon the pianist was adding journalism to her skills. Marian is an excellent writer. She did pieces for, among other publications, Down Beat, where as editor I tried in vain to get more stuff from her. Her articles were collected in a book, All In Good Time, published in 1987 by Oxford University Press. She even managed to get a good interview from Benny Goodman, one of many famous leaders with whom she intersected. And in 1970 she formed her own record label, Halcyon, whose small but distinguished catalog included a duet album with Joe Venuti.

An indication of the lady's stature as a prima inter pares by 1974 was a South American tour in the company of Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson and Ellis Larkins; her partners in a later jazz piano quartet, recording for RCA Victor, were Hank Jones, Dick Hyman and Roland Hanna.

Marian had also been an active teacher of children and teenagers when she launched, in 1979, the radio series “Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz." As every reader should know, that is probably National Public Radio's longest-running arts program, with more than a thousand guests over nearly three decades. While most of the artists are pianists and pianist-singers, they have included luminaries such as Benny Carter, Dizzy Gillespie and Ruby Braff, musicians for whom the piano was no professional outlet, but who risked a keyboard fling with the hostess. On the most recent show I've heard, Marian hosted Anat Cohen, playing clarinet and soprano sax from her reeds arsenal. They did a great “Someday Sweetheart." So it's been a long, long time since the show was an exclusive pianist's club.

THE PROGRAM'S LONGEVITY--it pulls in an estimated quarter-million-plus listeners in America --is due to Marian's unfailing graciousness, musical openness and understanding, knowledge of each guest's work, strengths and weaknesses and radio savvy. Oh yes, and that charming British accent, uniquely tempered with jazz overtones, doesn't hurt a bit. As proof of the show's quality, many episodes have been issued on CD; the two-piano numbers with McPartland are often high points. Marian can get every fellow artist to respond; I didn't think her magic would work on Cecil Taylor, but it did - the lady turns lions into lambs.

But that fabulous achievement on the airwaves (and now, of course, over the Internet) is far, far from all that still occupies Marian. For years she has been performing the Grieg Piano Concerto with symphony orchestras, but this past November 15 she unveiled another facet of her classical background. In Columbia, South Carolina, she premiered A Portrait of Rachel Carson, a composition for improvised piano and symphony orchestra. She collaborated with fellow pianist and noted arranger Alan Broadbent in the orchestrations. “Lots of far-out chords," she has said, symbolize “the dissonance of environmental harm to nature." You can hear it in April on WBGO and other NPR network stations during Earth Week. As the title implies, Marian is a staunch environmentalist and admirer of Rachel Carson's seminal book, Silent Spring.

Composing, of course, is nothing new for Marian. Her notable works include “Ambiance," recorded by the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, “The Days of Our Love," with Peggy Lee, and “Twilight World" with Johnny Mercer, which happens to be the title of her first studio-recorded CD in nine years, to be released March 11 on Concord, her label for 29 years. (A record record, I'm pretty sure!) It includes pieces by old friends like Alec Wilder, as well as surprises, like Ornette Coleman.

“I'm so happy to have done this," she said. “It's nice to have something you're this happy with at this stage of life." The album will be celebrated March l9-23 at Dizzy's Club Coca Cola at Lincoln Center, with many special guests joining her trio (Gary Mazzaroppi on bass and Glenn Davis on drums), including Ken Peplowski, Regina Carter and Chris Potter--you can google up the rest to be announced.

Come Labor Day weekend, this extraordinary lady is set to make her annual appearance at the Tanglewood Jazz Festival in the Berkshires--and who knows what else between then and now. As one of Marian's works puts it, “So Many Things." So many things accomplished, so many yet to come. All with those beautiful, special harmonies that only Marian can create--in music and in life.

Dan Morgenstern, a friend of Marian McPartland's, has piled up his own share of laurels. The NEA Jazz Master (JJ cover, December 2006) has won seven Grammy awards, the Deems Taylor Award and DownBeat magazine's Lifetime Achievement Award, among other honors. Dan is director of the Rutgers University Institute of Jazz Studies and a columnist for Jersey Jazz.

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