Fresh Air Remembers 'Piano Jazz' Host Marian McPartland

Aug 23, 2013
Originally published on August 23, 2013 10:31 am

For more than 30 years, jazz pianist Marian McPartland hosted one of public radio's most beloved shows, Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz. As NPR's Felix Contreras writes, she "gave the world an intimate, insider's perspective on one of the most elusive topics in music — jazz improvisation." McPartland died of natural causes on Tuesday at the age of 95. She spoke with Fresh Air's Terry Gross in 1987.

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.


DAVIES: For over 30 years, jazz pianist Marian McPartland hosted one of public radio's move beloved shows, "Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz." As NPR's Felix Contreras wrote, it gave the world an intimate insider's perspective on one of the most elusive topics in music, jazz improvisation. McPartland died of natural causes on Tuesday. She was 95.

We're going to remember her today with an interview she recorded in 1987 with Terry Gross. "Piano Jazz" featured performances and conversation with a wide variety of pianists, including Teddy Wilson, Bill Evans, Eubie Blake, Hank Jones, Ray Charles and Dave Brubeck. But not just piano players. Dizzy Gillespie, Tony Bennett, Lyle Hampton, Henry Mancini and Willie Nelson were guests as well.

Here's an excerpt with her program with the late pianist Oscar Peterson, which aired in 1998.


MARIAN MCPARTLAND: You know, something else I admire about you is you utilize all of the different styles, well I guess you have to when you're playing solo piano more than you do with a trio, but like this thing...


OSCAR PETERSON: Broken tense.

MCPARTLAND: You know, that's so great, broken tense.

PETERSON: One of the reasons I do that, Marian, is because when I play at tempo or any kind of a tempo, first of all it's a lot less tedious than jumping the octaves, you know, unless you want to for effect. But when I do that, it sends - it gives me a chance to play a little more of an evolved line against it.


PETERSON: Rather than...


PETERSON: You know, that...

MCPARTLAND: Yeah, but then you see you've got it all worked out because then after you do it with the broken tense, then you do the stride piano after that. Everybody gets excited. You know, like, like whether you know it or not, which I'm sure you do, you know, the things you do are very great for show because you get very excited, and everybody gets all excited, and then bang, suddenly you go right down to nothing, like...

PETERSON: I go to this (unintelligible) line and, like...



PETERSON: Well I do that also so people can hear. Many times, you know, I've been asked what, what is a line, what does it mean, why do people play like this. And, you know, I have always gone through the thing about creating a line and against a bass line, you know.


PETERSON: So with just the two going, they can hear the relationship.

MCPARTLAND: How about doing a duet?

PETERSON: I would love to.

MCPARTLAND: I mean, it took me a lot of - I've got a lot of guts saying that, but this is one of my favorite tunes, "Falling in Love with Love." And we're going to do this in C, right?

PETERSON: I hope so.


PETERSON: Because I don't know it in any other key.

MCPARTLAND: Can I do an ad-lib introduction?

PETERSON: You start it. Yeah, you start it.

MCPARTLAND: And then I'll go into C.

PETERSON: Go ahead.

MCPARTLAND: All right.

PETERSON: I'll follow you.


DAVIES: That's Marian McPartland in a duet with Oscar Peterson from her program " Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz." McPartland grew up in England, in a proper, middle-class home where classical music was abundant. But her interest in jazz represented a life her parents disapproved of. She met the American cornet player Jimmy McPartland during World War II while they were each performing for the troops and moved to his hometown, Chicago, after they married.

For the first few years of their 20-year marriage, she played Dixieland standards with her husband. But she soon became interested in the more modern jazz of the '50s and starting leading her own small groups. In 1979, McPartland launched "Piano Jazz," a production of South Carolina ETV Radio. As veteran Philadelphia listeners may recall, when FRESH AIR was still a local program here in Philadelphia, "Piano Jazz" was a regular Monday afternoon feature.

So it was a great treat when Terry had a change to interview McPartland in 1987. Here's their conversation.


Marian McPartland, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's a pleasure to have you here.

MCPARTLAND: Thank you, Terry, it's nice to be here.

GROSS: I feel like we should play a duet together like on your show, but no.


MCPARTLAND: Why not? We've got a piano here. Let's try four hands.

GROSS: I'd like to talk to you about your life. So many of your listeners have heard you talk with other musicians about their lives. I want to hear some about yours. I know you came from a pretty proper family in England. Your mother played classical music and I think wished that you played classical music, too. They didn't like the idea of you playing jazz. What did it represent to your parents?

MCPARTLAND: I don't think - now Terry, you know, I don't think they minded - I don't think they minded what I played. It was just when they got the idea that I was going to do something in music, that they weren't going to see me get what they thought would be a nice job, like my father always thought it would be nice if I worked in a bank or became a nurse of all ridiculous things.

They really didn't mind me playing jazz, but when they finally got the word that I was going to be in it, then it became a different thing, it became music as a profession.

GROSS: What did they object to about that?

MCPARTLAND: Oh, I think my mother said, what was it, oh, you'll come to no good. You'll marry a musician and live in an attic. See, that's pretty much what happened.


MCPARTLAND: Although we weren't ever in the attic, but we were in some funny little apartments. So that was her idea, that I would meet terrible people and that I would come to no good, you know, that it represented something depraved, and...

GROSS: Did your teachers in music school feel the same way?

MCPARTLAND: The three years that I did take lessons at the Guild Hall School of Music, I played by ear up until that time, when I was studying, the professor I had there was a very wonderful guy, very solemn, very much against jazz, and at that time I was really into learning all kinds of jazz from records. And I would be supposed to be practicing, but I would be playing something by Art Tatum or trying to perfect an Art Tatum run or something.

And he opened the door one time and got very red in the face. Stop playing that trash. But it really wasn't long after that that I left and took off with a four-piano act that was my first introduction to not so much the jazz life but the show business life. And actually now I'm rather proud of having worked in all those vaudeville theaters because they're very historical places, those of them that are still standing.

GROSS: I think your entry into the jazz came during World War II, when you were playing for the troops and playing a lot of jazz, were you considered something of a freak, being a woman jazz musician?

MCPARTLAND: No, I don't think so, Terry, because when I went to France and played in a group for the armed forces, that really wasn't jazz. That was sort of show biz again. And then actually after I met Jimmy, I guess that's when I feel that I really got into playing a little more actual jazz.

But then when I came here to the States and got to hear all the people in person that I had loved for so long on records, like Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, James P. Johnston, Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, all those people. Then a lot of it did start to sort of rub off on me, and I became a better player because of hearing all these people and of course because of Jimmy, working with his group.

I certainly have a fine Dixieland repertoire, and we still play together, and we still play all those tunes.

GROSS: Well when you started playing, you were playing with your husband's band.


GROSS: And I wonder if it was hard for you to get your own sense of identity as a performer. I think a lot of women who are married to someone who they work with, especially a few decades ago, were considered the wife of and kind of secondary to the man who was performing. Did that ever happen?

MCPARTLAND: It's funny. I guess I must have been naturally pushy or something.


MCPARTLAND: Plus the fact that Jimmy was very helpful. He was always very helpful and very admiring of my talent, and he was always kind of introducing me to do solo numbers and to do numbers with the band. He seemed to be very proud of what I did. In fact when we moved to New York, it was really through Jimmy that I got started with the trio because I really didn't want to.

He kept saying oh, you want to have your own trio, and you shouldn't be working in this band. I could feel myself getting out of the Dixieland chord structure and into more modern things. And of course I listened to everything that was going on all the time. So he really was the one that kind of sold me on the idea that I should have my own trio.

And once I did start with the trio, Jimmy was very helpful in introducing me to all kinds of people. And I always tell him he created a monster because, you know, once I started, I didn't want to stop. That was it.

GROSS: Well, some jazz musicians remain sidemen all their lives. They spent their lives playing with other people's bands.

MCPARTLAND: That's true.

GROSS: Very early on in your career, you became a leader. How did you manage to pull that off?

MCPARTLAND: Well, I guess what happened was I got booked in this one place, The Embers, so since I had been booked as the leader, I was able to hire the people to work with me. And from then on it always was that way. I was always booked as the leader and would hire the best - I always wanted the best sidemen there were available.

As a matter of fact, in a way I'm kind of sorry I didn't what I would call go through the ranks and be a sideman or side person with some other groups, but it just didn't work out that way because I went right from working with Jimmy to my own trio. And it was very hard because it was a top club, and I felt that I was very green and callow.

And it's funny, I couldn't open my mouth. I remember we had my group, and Eddie Heyward was opposite me. I couldn't even think what to say to introduce him. I had it written on a piece of paper: Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen, and now I'd like to introduce Eddie Heyward. You know, I would do it, and I would be shaking. It was so funny.

But, you know, we went - I guess you learn by doing, you know.

GROSS: Jimmy McPartland used to drink a lot.

MCPARTLAND: Yes, he sure did.

GROSS: Did you ever feel since you were his wife, when you were playing together on the bandstand, that you had to keep one eye on how much he was drinking?

MCPARTLAND: Oh Terry, that's a whole other - I mean, Jimmy finally went into AA, and I was probably a terrible person because I was always nagging and worrying about that. It just seems like there's always somebody around a person who drinks a lot. There's always some sort of well-meaning do-gooder trying to keep them straight, and that was me.

GROSS: Well that must have put a real strain on your performing to on the one hand be playing and on the other hand trying to keep track of what was happening with your husband.

MCPARTLAND: Yeah, I mean there's so many anecdotes I could tell about that. At this point they seem funny, though at the time they weren't because, you know, when somebody's drinking, they always have a million friends who want to make sure that they buy them drinks, and they get their quota. You know, Jimmy would walk around the bar and tell everybody that his wife couldn't stand to see him drink. And so his friends would say oh that's terrible, you know, and they would carry a water glass full of gin into the men's room.

And I never could figure out how he got - well no, Jimmy wasn't a sort of falling-down drunk. He just got very slow and boring. You know, and the worst thing that would happen would be he would be announcing a tune, and it would take him 10 minutes to announce the tune, and we'd all be saying oh, for God's sake, get on with it, you know.

Now that's a whole other side of my life, and it seems to have, in retrospect, as I say, a lot of it seems very funny, though at the time it was quite a tragedy. But it's great. It worked out because he did stop, and so many of the musicians that he worked with are gone, probably because of that. You know, a lot of people died too young. So not so with the old man. He's in good shape.

DAVIES: Marian McPartland, recorded in 1987. Marian and Jimmy McPartland remarried in 1991, shortly before Jimmy's death. The divorce, she liked to say, didn't take. We'll hear more of our interview with Marian McPartland after this break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering Marian McPartland, who died on Tuesday at the age of 95. Let's get back to the interview she did with Terry Gross, recorded in 1987.

GROSS: You told us a little earlier that you didn't feel that out of place being a woman early on in your jazz career, and I'll tell you I find that hard to believe.

MCPARTLAND: Well see, Terry, before I had gone to America, there were so many women that I had listened to who were my idols, like Hazel Scott and Mary Lou Williams, Lil Armstrong and a woman who I really admired a great deal, Cleo Brown. So I didn't realize that being a woman, when I got to New York, being a woman with a jazz group people would find it unusual because it seemed to me that there were plenty of women out there, and I still think so.

GROSS: You know what might have been helpful to you, too, being married to a jazz musician. And what I mean by that is that you weren't, quote, available to any man who thinks, well, I think I'll flirt with that dame pianist, you know, because...

MCPARTLAND: No that's true, that's true, and then there's this to it, also, Terry, that when I did get out with my own trio, I was really in it for the music. Like although I think I dressed pretty well, you know, cared about my appearance, there wasn't any idea of, well, I'm going to play, and I'm going to be winking at some guy at the bar. I was always - I wanted so much for the music to be accepted, and I really wanted to play as well as I could. And that's always been in the forefront, you know, to try to play as well as I could, although at that time I was - I think I was rather dependent upon the opinion of other people.

I mean, I'm not so much that anymore. I've sort of become my own person a little more than I was then.

GROSS: Did you feel initially uncomfortable in the jazz life as an upper-middle-class British woman? Were you made to feel uncomfortable by that? Did you try to...

MCPARTLAND: You mean to get down and to be one of the boys?


GROSS: Exactly. Well this - a lot of people go through this, you know, that they're just a little embarrassed about their proper upbringing, and they try to be more down or more bohemian or whatever.

MCPARTLAND: No, I think I was always myself in that regard, in fact, but people used to kid me either about my accent, but I really was one of the group. I mean, I wasn't somebody that sort of was a snob. I think - I mean although I came, I feel that my family were snobs, my mother was very careful about - she didn't let me mingle with certain kinds of people. Well, that's why they were so upset about me being in the music business, because they felt that everybody in music had to be weird or a bohemian or strange.

You know, some of the strangest people I've ever met have had nothing to do with music.

GROSS: You know, your career has had an interesting graph to us. A lot of musicians early on in their lives become very well-known for a certain style or for a certain recording, and then they reach a peak early on, and it's kind of, in the public eye, it's kind of downhill from there. And I think with your career it's been exactly the opposite. It's been this slow, upward...

MCPARTLAND: It's amazing, isn't it?

GROSS: Every year you become known, and I think your playing becomes more beautiful, and it's - I think it's an unusual twist on the typical career.

MCPARTLAND: It's funny. I think - well, I just feel as if everything I've done has been a sort of a springboard to do something else. And I like to set goals for myself and always have something new to do. And I also have this feeling that one, you're supposed to improve. As you learn more, you're supposed to get better. I feel as I know more, therefore I should be able to play more, and I'm always trying to eliminate bad things about my playing.

And it's just that feeling. I think, well, you should be able to do better, you should be able to play better, you should be able to write more. And so far I've been luck that's the way it's gone.

GROSS: It also brings to mind a very nice quote from Mary Lou Williams that's in one of the profiles in your new book, and she says anything you are shows up in your music.

MCPARTLAND: Yeah, isn't that a great thing?

GROSS: I do like that quote a lot. It seems to me that cuts both ways, though.


MCPARTLAND: It probably does.

GROSS: The wisdom of your life is reflected in your music. But if you're really in a real rut emotionally, that could come out in your music, too.

MCPARTLAND: Yeah, I'm sure it could. I mean, I don't want to drop any names, but I can think of some people years ago that I felt that about, that they would reach a certain level. And I guess the temptation is if you're very well-known is to reach a certain level and then coast on what you had. And you sort of think, well, I don't have to do any better.

But I think maybe that's the way I've always been brought up, that you're supposed to always do your best and try hard and don't give up, and there's a saying about - I forget who said this but when you sit down to play, you should play as if it were the last day of your life, play as well as you can because it may be the last chance you have to play.

And I think a lot of us do feel that way.

GROSS: Well, I wish you the best with the new series, and I thank you very much.

MCPARTLAND: Are we done?

GROSS: Yeah, time just flew by.


GROSS: Thank you so much for being here, Marian McPartland.

MCPARTLAND: Oh thank you, Terry.

DAVIES: Marian McPartland, speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1987. McPartland hosted" Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz" for more than 30 years. She died Tuesday; she was 95. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.