A week after her death at 95, Marian McPartland is still on my mind. She’ll be there for a long time. In his biography of the pianist published earlier this year, Shall We Play That One Together? Paul de Barros did a splendid job of blending the facets of McPartland’s personality. He contrasts her famous elegance and charm with determination and crudeness never evident on Piano Jazz, the radio program that made her famous. As de Barros tells it in a Seattle Times blog post, getting Marian’s confidence and trust was a long and often frustrating process. Here is an excerpt:
On the radio, Marian is self-deprecating, gracious and genteel, but in person she could be imperious, demanding, highly critical – sometimes even derisive and mean – and certainly not shy about sharing what was on her mind. Her conversational style was combative. If she didn’t have a good answer, she would offer a clever quip instead, or answer questions with questions. She was particularly vague about dates – a biographer’s nightmare – and when I would press her, she would argue, “Does it really matter?” Or if she didn’t know a precise date, she would sometimes just make one up. In published interviews, she had variously said she moved to New York in 1949, 1950 and 1951. I explained that writing a biography without dates was like playing a tune without the chord changes. “It’s the map, Marian, the timeline is the map.” But she honestly didn’t care. “I never knew when I did all these things I would be required to remember them,” she complained sarcastically.
Marian also had the habit of correcting my pronunciation. “It’s Dee-lius,” she jeered, when I first mistakenly called her favorite composer “Dell-ioos,” After two weeks of such browbeating, I was so frustrated I was ready to abandon the project altogether and fly home.
de Barros stayed around. McP came around. The resulting book is one of the best of all jazz biographies. To read Paul’s account of what it took to make it work, go here.
Then come back and listen to McPartland’s 1956 recording of “I Could Write a Book” with Bill Crow on bass and Joe Morello on drums.
Sidebar: It was that kind of work by Morello with wire brushes that led Paul Desmond to recommend to Dave Brubeck that he hire the drummer after Joe Dodge left the Brubeck Quartet. Brubeck did, that very year.
Reminder: Ambiance: The Many Facets of Marian McPartland, produced by jazz journalist Ken Dryden, will air on the Chatanooga, Tennesee, station WUTC-FM Thursday, August 29th, starting approximately at 8:20 pm EDT. It will follow the news magazine Round & About. The two-hour program will include music from throughout her career, drawn from a variety of LPs and CDs, along with a few surprises. It will also include excerpts from Ken’s first of several interviews with the pianist, recorded in 1988. The program will be streamed live at www.wutc.org but will not be archived as a podcast.