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Image from the cover of Yesterdays: Marian Mcpartland - First Lady of Jazz (2006)
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On Tuesday, 20 August 2013, we lost pianist and radio host Marian McPartland. Marian (as everyone called her during her more than four decades in radio) was the best ambassador and educator in jazz history. The music will miss her more than it knows.


Jazz and Radio—a Critical Connection


Radio has been critically important to jazz. All contemporary music, prior to the last ten years or so, has had radio to thank for the way that folks discovered its joys. Jazz, pop, rock ‘n’ roll, soul. For jazz, however, radio was particularly important. During radio’s pre-television heyday, jazz was the star, with Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington among many others surging to public consciousness from dance halls all across the US and into living rooms and parties.


Later, urban jazz DJs promoted and ushered in new jazz styles—most notably bebop, which ascended significantly based on the support of folks like Symphony Sid or Mort Fega. And when jazz became harder to discover in the pop culture landscape of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the word still spread through great jazz stations on public radio in New York, in Chicago, on the West Coast, all over.


Starting in 1964, Pacifica Radio’s WBAI in New York started letting a British jazz pianist from Great Britain—the 46 year-old Marian McPartland—interview guest musicians on the air. In 1978, Marion started the show on National Public Radio that would make her more famous than her own music: Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz. She kept recording episodes well into 2010, when she was 92 years old.


The effect of this incredible body of work—hundreds of episodes with rare repeat guests—is tough to explain or calculate. But the magic of radio is the thing. When you listened to Piano Jazz, you felt that you were in a room with two real, regular folks—Marian and her guest—who just happened to be talking about one of the most elusive things that exists in the arts: that quicksilver known as jazz improvisation. Because it was radio, you could imagine sitting three feet away from these two folks, maybe sharing the edge of a piano bench with Chick Corea or Ray Charles. You were in on the secrets. It was full-on intimacy.


There was never a radio show that made you feel closer to the divine than this one.


Marian, the Charmer


Radio, then, is about intimacy. And listening to Marian on the radio was a thrill, a charm, and a little bit of seduction.


Though Marian’s first guest was a woman, the great Mary Lou Williams, the bulk of her guests were men. And though there won’t be a single listener who would say that she was in any way subordinate to her guests, Marian had a way of injecting every show—every conversation—with a sense of play, of flirtation, of tantalizing zing. Because, though Marian could keep up with every one of her guests on piano, she also delighted in each guest, she charmed them. She charmed you as a listener.


Marian McPartland was born in 1918 as Margaret Marian Turner in Slough, England. She studied classical music in London before getting interested in jazz and joining a four-piano vaudeville act in 1938. She was touring with the USO, entertaining troops during World War Two, when she met American “Dixieland” cornet player Jimmy McPartland. The two married before coming back to the US and, ultimately, settling in New York.


So, listening to Marian on the radio, you always heard that English accent, a sweet lilt and a set of charming vowel sounds that never really left her even though her laugh, her diction, and her vocabulary had a hip jazz groove as well. In talking to guests, Marian was always girlish on the one hand—easy and fun and flattering—but also a colleague who could “talk shop” with someone like Oscar Peterson, a musical equal who knew what he was doing and how technically difficult it was.


This was the thrill of Marian as a radio personality. She was a truly independent woman—leading her own trio in New York City by 1952 and playing the most modern harmonies out there even though her husband was a more retrograde Dixieland player. She was strong but not “tough”. She was serious but utterly fun.


Marian’s guests started with just other jazz pianists but later expanded to include not only singers and other instrumentalists but eventually even musicians from beyond jazz, like Elvis Costello, Steely Dan, Stephen Sondheim, and Alicia Keys, Talking to them, Marian had the quality of being a best friend but also a fan. Which meant that, as a listener, you were made to feel that maybe you could have a conversation with Keith Jarrett or Pat Metheny or Bill Evans that led to the inevitable, “Well, what do you say we play a tune together?”


What is Jazz, Anyway?


And then Marian and the guest would play. (The guests played solo too—and Marian was a wonderful audience.) And here was the real magic of the show. While I have no doubt she and her guests planned which tunes to play, these performances sounded thoroughly unrehearsed. They were little jams done live to tape in the studio, warts and all, but given the caliber of the musicianship, warts were hard for listeners to detect, if you will.


When Marian sat down to play with her guests, they would typically choose a “jazz standard”—a classic song that most jazz players would know. A Tin Pan Alley tune, perhaps, a show tune, a modern jazz staple. It could be Gershwin or Ellington, Kern or Monk, a blues or a ballad. But here, you would realize, was the cool thing about this improvised American music. There was a common vocabulary that allowed strangers to come together and do something beautiful with little preparation.


The result sounded immensely sophisticated—and really was very sophisticated, what with all the tricky harmony and complex theory that sat behind the playing—but it also flowed with incredible ease and even abandon. Listening to Marian play with her guests was like watching the Harlem Globetrotters toss around a basketball or like experiencing Astaire and Rogers working out a routine for the first time.


In these performances, and in the conversations that came before and after them, Marian McPartland did something that no one has ever done better. She would talk to her partner about the improvising itself. She might say, “I really liked that part where you were playing that little blues figure up high, then you worked some mystery into it with the pedal point in the left hand.” Her early interview and set of duets with Bill Evans, for example, are just about sublime.


What Marian taught me in these interviews, more than anything, is that jazz playing is storytelling. That improvising melodies over the structure or harmony of songs is a spontaneous act of spinning your own story. If you really know a tune, she would explain, you can make it tell your story.


Later, Not Goodbye


Marian McPartland’s story—or at least the one she let us in on through these radio broadcasts—was a love affair. It was a love affair with music and musicians, with the possibilities for love and joy that exist when you really embrace something.


She stopped recording new Piano Jazz shows a few years ago, but the show lives on—the idea of it and its execution by other hosts—and we can still listen back to Marian with greats of old and new folks too. She never shied away from the modern: interviews with Vijay Iyer, Robert Glasper, Don Byron.


Marian reminded us that jazz is conversation, jazz is an ongoing story, jazz can inspire a laugh and a held breath.


I’ll go back to these interviews for as long as I listen. “Later,” Marian McPartland.

Will Layman is a writer, teacher and musician living in the Washington, DC area. He is a contributor to National Public Radio and frequently appears as a guest on WNYC's "Soundcheck" as a jazz critic. He plays both funk and jazz in the bars and clubs in and near the nation's capital. His fiction and humor appear in print and online.


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