Two days following Cedar Walton’s passing, we have lost another splendid pianist, one of the world’s best known and best loved jazz artists. Marian McPartland died in her sleep just before midnight Tuesday in her home on Long Island, New York. A message from family members reports that she passed away, “smiling, knowing that she was surrounded by family and friends.” Ms. McPartland was 95.
She developed from a shy English schoolgirl into a major influence in the music. It is the story of talent, determination and unforced charm overcoming prejudices in jazz against women and, in some quarters in the 1940s, against foreigners having the presumption to play “our” music. For a comprehensive survey of her life and importance, see Peter Keepnews’s McPartland obituary in today’s New York Times. Paul de Barros’s recent McPartland biography is highly recommended. For thoughts about her growth into a substantial jazz player, here is a portion of my notes for her 1982 trio album Personal Choice.
A pleasing and popular jazz artist since her earliest exposure on the New York and Chicago club scenes, year by year she has increased her command of the piano and looked more deeply into her art. McPartland’s piano playing has always been beautiful. Now, it is also lean, tough and full of surprises.
It is no coincidence that during the past decade, her period of most intense artistic development, she has been heavily involved with extracurricular activities. Her National Public Radio program “Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz” is into its third season as one of the most successful live jazz series ever presented. It has brought her into close contact with many of her fellow pianists, ranging in style from Eubie Blake to Chick Corea. Her cable TV series, “Women in Jazz,” has been shown all over the country. She has also remained extremely active in music education on the primary, secondary and college levels, conducting workshops and seminars. Despite all these commitments…possibly in part because of them…Marian continues to grow as a player, moving closer and closer to the essence of jazz. It is inconceivable that anyone today could write of her “woman’s touch, as a Down Beat reviewer did, disparagingly, in the early 1970s. The concept does not apply. She has the technique, the forthright inventiveness, the expressiveness of a first-rank jazz pianist. Gender is irrelevant.Great Day in Harlem photo by Art Kane
“I feel I have more freedom at the keyboard now to experiment with new ideas,” Marian says. “I think I’m getting better, and I want to keep on getting better. It’s rewarding to know there has been some improvement. It’s nice to be in this business because chances to be creative are never-ending. There’s always more than you can do. You can’t say, “well, I’ve done everything; now I’m going to retire, give myself a gold watch, and go to Florida to play Shuffleboard.”
She kept getting better—and bolder. On her show, she once got into a free jazz give-and-take with the iconoclastic pianist Cecil Taylor. “I’ve become a bit more — reckless, maybe,” she said when she was 80. “I’m getting to the point where I can smash down a chord and not know what it’s going to be, and make it work.”
Given her importance, there is surprisingly little on film or videotape of Marian performing. Here, she plays her composition “Afterglow” at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1974.
For a more robust aspect of McP’s playing—in a jam session with Jimmy McPartland, Joe Venuti and others—watch this video from 1975.
In New York, I occasionally encountered Marian on the street or the Times Square shuttle. Once on the train, she sat down next to me with a serious expression and said, “I saw what you wrote.” In Down Beat, I had reviewed one of her albums and complimented her liner notes, with something like, “I wish she’d mind her own business. Do I run around playing the piano?” She stared at me as the subway rattled along. “Oh, oh,” I thought, ‘here it comes.’” She said, “I laughed at that for a good five minutes.”
One night at the Algonquin Hotel, where Alec Wilder lived for years, Marian, Willis Conover, Paul Desmond, my wife and I ringed our chairs around Alec for one of his evenings holding court in the lobby that served as his living room. Marian and Alec adored one another. As always on those occasions, their good feeling set the tone with his good-natured grumpiness and her laughter. I wish that we could do it again.