Jazz great McPartland to unveil symphonic piece on Rachel Carson

by Jeffrey Day

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

13 November 2007


COLUMBIA, S.C.—Marian McPartland already has plans for her birthday next March.

She’ll be playing piano at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, a New York jazz venue named for her friend, the great trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie. She’ll probably be joined by friends she’s made during her long career, especially those who have appeared on “Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz.”

THE MARIAN MCPARTLAND FILE Born 1918 in Slough, Buckinghamshire, Great Britain Studied music as a child; introduced to jazz in the 1930s. Around 1942 joined a four-piano vaudeville act that played for servicemen during World War II. Met Jimmy McPartland, a coronet player and U.S.soldier, at a 1944 show in Belgium. They married the next year, moved to Chicago and then to New York in 1949. From 1952 to 1960, Marian McPartland led a trio at the Hickory House, a nightclub and restaurant in New York. Founded Halcyon records and began writing for jazz magazines. Collaborated with Johnny Mercer to write “Twilight World,” recorded by Tony Bennett, and with Peggy Lee for “In the Days of Our Love,” performed by Cleo Laine. The McPartlands divorced in 1970, but remarried two weeks before his death in 1991. Started hosting “Piano Jazz” in 1978. Honors: Down Beat magazine Lifetime Achievement Award, 1994; named American Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, 2000; Lifetime Achievement Grammy, 2004; named Living Jazz Legend by the Kennedy Center, 2007; inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame, Nov. 3.

McPartland will be celebrating her 90th birthday; “Piano Jazz,” a National Public Radio program created and produced by ETV Radio, will be approaching its 30th anniversary and 700th show.

But right now, McPartland is preparing for the world premiere of her symphonic piece “A Portrait of Rachel Carson,” inspired by the author of the groundbreaking 1962 environmental book “Silent Spring.”

McPartland will unveil the piece Thursday with the University of South Carolina Symphony.

“I have to sit down and play a few notes without getting in the way of the orchestra,” McPartland said by telephone from her Long Island home last week. “Then in the second movement, there’s a cadenza which I’ll probably play for five or six minutes, and that will be an improvisation.”

“A Portrait of Rachel Carson” poured out of the pianist in a studio several years ago.

“I got the idea to do this because of what people are doing to the world,” McPartland said. “All I can do is play something about it.”

The first movement expresses Carson’s voice through clarinet; in the second, much of that voice is drowned out by competing sounds representing environmental damage.

Although formally trained, McPartland doesn’t read or write music, so she hired someone to transcribe what she had played and arrange it for orchestra. Shari Hutchinson, producer of “Piano Jazz” since 1987, got the ball rolling on the premiere by talking to USC Symphony conductor Donald Portnoy. He got the score, and in April the orchestra made a recording so McPartland could hear the full effect.

Portnoy thought it would sound best with the composer herself at the keyboard.

“I told her it would be a great idea if she could perform with us,” Portnoy said. “She’s such a wonderful performer.”

“This has been a lifelong dream of Marian’s,” said Hutchinson, who started in 1982 as the engineer for the show. “We’re happy to be part of making it happen.”

Carson died in 1964. Her son, Roger Christie, is expected to attend the premiere. ETV will film much of McPartland’s visit and plans to make a documentary.

McPartland is better known for her interpretations of standards rather than writing fare for orchestras. But she’s best known for “Piano Jazz,” through which she has drawn attention to older players and introduced many younger ones carrying the jazz torch. The programs are a mix of informal conversation, performances by the guest and often-improvised duets with McPartland.

She reminisces about the old days, sometimes sounds a little out of touch with the younger artists and often downplays her own skills.

“Piano Jazz” was an outgrowth of “American Popular Song,” which ETV created in 1975. When one of the hosts became sick, he suggested McPartland, who had hosted jazz radio programs in New York, to host a new show. Most of those involved with “Piano Jazz” didn’t expect it to be around long; it originally was scheduled to run 13 weeks.

“Oh, I don’t know, I thought they’d get tired of it,” McPartland said. “Someone came up with the money, and we kept going. I just hope we keep going.”

It’s the longest-running music program on NPR, aired on 200 stations in the United States and dozens more around the world.

“Piano Jazz” is produced by ETV but recorded in New York. McPartland and crew go to California from time to time and for six years have recorded at the Tanglewood Jazz Festival in Massachusetts. But concerts are increasingly rare.

“I’m not as spry as I used to be,” said McPartland, whose voice is shaky and at times nearly inaudible. “I don’t want to fly too much any more and try not to take many gigs far away.”

A native of Great Britain, Margaret Marian Turner was playing in a four-piano variety act during World War II when she met coronet player Jimmy McPartland, who was in the U.S. Army. He had been in a big band that included Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and Jack Teagarden—and later went on to form his own bands. The two married in 1945 and moved to Chicago, then New York. For a time, they were in a band together.

In 1952, she formed a trio to play at a New York City restaurant and nightclub called The Hickory House. Like “Piano Jazz,” it was supposed to be a short run, but she ended up staying for a decade. The club was the gathering place for jazz luminaries Goodman, Oscar Peterson and Duke Ellington.

She also founded a record label, became a regular writer for Down Beat and other jazz publications, wrote tunes recorded by Tony Bennett and others and played in Goodman’s band.

In the first years of “Piano Jazz,” McPartland brought in players she had known for decades. In keeping with the name of the show, they all were pianists. Then the show opened up: A 1983 segment with actor and pianist Dudley Moore won a Peabody Award. Trumpeter Gillespie made an appearance in 1985.

Other jazz giants who appeared on the show were Benny Carter, Dave Brubeck, Milt Hinton and Bill Evans. Hit songwriter Burt Bacharach stopped in, as did Clint Eastwood. Singers such as Bennett, Betty Buckley and Renee Fleming have joined McPartland.

As a woman playing jazz—the first review she received noted that she had three strikes against her: “She’s English, white and a woman”—McPartland has made a point of having many female guests.

In recent years, “Piano Jazz” has drawn performers from the rock and pop world who have a love of jazz—Alicia Keys, Bruce Hornsby, Norah Jones, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan, and Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts.

Some of them have deep ties to “Piano Jazz.” Norah Jones’ piano teacher played her tapes of the show.

Diana Krall was a young musician in British Columbia who listened to “Piano Jazz” growing up. She tracked down McPartland to ask for her advice, and the two became friends. Krall later introduced her husband, Elvis Costello, to McPartland. He’s been on the show twice in two years.

“You never know who’s going to show up in her living room,” Hutchinson said.

Each hour-long program is culled from about three hours of taping, and while there are some retakes, what ends up on the radio is pretty close to what happens in the studio, Hutchinson said.

Most of the time, things go well, but not always.

The first show, with Mary Lou Williams, was difficult, though she and McPartland were old friends.

“(Williams) was a tough cookie,” Hutchinson said. “She thought she should have gotten the show instead of Marian.”

McPartland said she didn’t care for the quiet and standoffish Keith Jarrett, but “he wound up being my best pal. In the end, he approved of my playing.

“Sometimes I attempt to not be as good as them—they can be very competitive,” she said. “But these things are fun. I never went away feeling angry. Some go better than others.”

It often takes years to get certain guests, but more often musicians are calling her.

“You’d be surprised how many people write and offer to be on,” she said. “A lot of time, it’s people I never heard of.”

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