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August 30, 2013

TT: More than a radio star

In today's Wall Street Journal "Sightings" column I talk about the artistry of Marian McPartland. Here's an excerpt.

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When Marian McPartland died last week at the age of 95, the obituaries devoted roughly equal time to her career as a jazz pianist, her second career as the founder and longtime host of NPR's "Piano Jazz" and the fact that she was a woman. That's fair enough: "Piano Jazz" was the most influential jazz program in the history of American network radio, and McPartland came to fame at a time when you could still count the number of successful women jazz instrumentalists on the fingers of one hand. But the flood of tributes failed to make clear what her admirers had always known, which was that she was a performer first and foremost, a soloist of strong personality and real quality whose shimmering, iridescent harmonies were instantly distinctive. "Piano Jazz" may have made McPartland famous, but it was her playing that made her important.

McPartland always made a point of playing duets with her guests on "Piano Jazz" (on which she interviewed everyone from Dave Brubeck to Steely Dan). The chameleon-like ease with which she accommodated their varied styles could suggest to casual listeners that she had no style of her own. Nothing could have been further from the truth: Never for a moment did she submerge her own quiet yet unmistakable individuality. Nor should she have done so, for she worked unremittingly hard to develop it, much harder than most of her fans realized.

Born in England in 1918, McPartland was a classically trained prodigy who became interested in jazz as a teenager. Not until 1944, though, did she work for the first time with an American jazzman, the cornetist Jimmy McPartland, a Bix Beiderbecke protégé whom she married and with whom she moved to the U.S. after World War II. There she heard bebop and turned herself into a thoroughly modern jazz soloist. In 1952 McPartland and her trio began an eight-year residency at the Hickory House, a popular New York restaurant that was one of Duke Ellington's favorite hangouts. At length she got up the nerve to ask Ellington what he thought of her playing. His reply was elegantly and charcteristically enigmatic: "You play so many notes." Eventually it hit McPartland that he wasn't paying her a compliment: "After a while I thought, 'He probably is telling me I'm playing too many.' It was one of the best criticisms I ever had."...

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Read the whole thing here.

Marian McPartland plays her arrangement of Bix Beiderbecke's "In a Mist" in 1974:

Posted August 30, 2013 12:00 AM

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