Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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McPartland, Marian (Margaret Marian Turner)

Pianist Marian McPartland has mastered virtually every style of jazz, including bebop and free jazz, in her more than seventy-year career. Now in her nineties, she demonstrates a level of dexterity and imagination at the keyboard which few pianists, of any age, ever achieve. A pioneering jazz journalist, she has broadcast her own radio show for more than forty years.

              Marian McPartland, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

Margaret Marian Turner was born on March 20th, 1918 in Windsor, England, a small suburban town on the outskirts of London. While she began early to play the piano, but she also played the violin through her early teenage years.

Marian studied music formally at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, one of the United Kingdom's most acclaimed institutions for performing arts. At the age of twenty, overriding her parents' strong objections, she joined pianist Billy Mayerl's traveling Music Hall and vaudeville act. Mayerl is generally credited as one of the originators of the genre of light orchestral or mood music. She performed under the stage name of Marian Page with Mayerl, and also provided entertainment for Allied troops during World War II.

In 1944, while she was in Belgium, Marian met cornetist Jimmy McPartland. They soon married in Aachen, Germany, and in 1946 she returned with him to the United States. The couple first set up camp in Chicago, where Jimmy had replaced Bix Beiderbecke in the Wolverines.

McPartland worked in Chicago to mixed results as she said in an interview, "There was a funny incident. We worked a horrible club called the Rose Bowl in Chicago which had a bowling alley attached to it. Jimmy always liked to hear me play a solo. I was playing "Claire de Lune" for some reason, and not a jazz tune, when a roar came from the bowling crowd next door for somebody getting a strike or something. That ended the solo spot."

Jimmy insisted that Marian start her own trio, since already at this time she had a developed ear and talent for all styles of jazz, including bebop. After moving to New York City, Marian started a trio, which first played at Manhattan's Embers Club in 1950. In 1952, the trio began a long-standing association with the Hickory Club on 54th Street in Manhattan. This trio featured bassist Bill Crow and drummer Joe Morello, who left the group to join pianist Dave Brubeck.

Marian also recorded some duo piano sessions with Bud Powell during the mid-1950s. In 1955, she began contributing articles about jazz to various publications, including The Boston Globe and Melody Maker in the United Kingdom. In 1987, Oxford University Press released an anthology of her jazz writings under the title All in Good Time.

In 1958, McPartland appeared in Art Kane's legendary photograph of jazz masters for Life magazine, which inspired Jean Bach's documentary film "A Great Day in Harlem," McPartland and Mary Lou Williams were the only two women to be featured in the photo.

Also during the 1950s, McPartland began her recording career. Savoy released her first album, Jazz at the Hickory House, in 1952. She also recorded the album With You in My Mind for Capitol in 1957, and can be heard with her trio and baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan on "C Jam Blues," recorded live at the Newport Jazz Festival on July 3, 1958.

Frustrated by what she perceived as a lack of interest in her music by major record companies, McPartland founded her own label in 1969, called Halcyon. In addition to releasing albums by McPartland, the label released albums by Joe Venuti, Teddy Wilson, and Earl "Fatha" Hines. The day-to-day operations of Halcyon ceased in the late 1970s, but many of the label's releases continued to be widely available.

McPartland began her career as a music disc jockey in 1966, on New York City's WBAI. In 1970, she divorced Jimmy McPartland after nearly 25 years, although they remarried shortly before his death from lung cancer in 1991.

Around this time, McPartland began an effort of to bring jazz education to schoolchildren. She was quoted in Down Beat magazine in 1994 as saying, "I was so afraid rock & roll was going to kill jazz that I went into the schools. I couldn't fight rock & roll but I wanted kids to know that there's another music." She has taught at schools all across the country including elementary, junior high, high school, and colleges.

In 1978, she created the program Piano Jazz for National Public Radio. The show, which is syndicated and broadcast nationwide, is the network's longest-running cultural program. On the show, McPartland typically interviews her guest first, then plays songs in duet with them. Past guests have included Mary Lou Williams, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock and Oscar Peterson. McPartland has also invited the rock group Steely Dan and singer-songwriter Alicia Keys to perform on the show.

A number of McPartland's Piano Jazz shows, such as her 1978 performance with Mary Lou Williams, have been released on compact disc, and they capture the magical wonder of her playing. She is at ease in any style of music and provides such wonderful inflections that any listener can hear why she herself has become an institution of jazz piano.

It is a blessing for listeners that McPartland has recorded more frequently, and exceptionally well, in her autumn years. She has recorded a series of solo performances for Concord Records at Berkeley, California's Maybeck Concert Hall, which include 1991's rendition of Jerome Kern's "A Fine Romance."In 1994, she recorded an album of Mary Lou Williams' compositions, which includes her interpretations of "Threnody" and "Cloudy."

Marian McPartland turned 90 years old in 2008. To celebrate her birthday, Concord released an album, Twilight World, which features her stunning rendition of Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman." She is still active with her radio show and continues to perform in the United States and abroad. She is the rare master of multiple musical styles, and even one who feels equally at home when writing or as an interviewer.

Select Discography

Jazz at the Hickory House (Savoy, 1952)

With You in My Mind (Capitol, 1957)

Ambience (Halcyon, 1970)

From This Moment On (Concord, 1978)

Plays the Music of Billy Strayhorn (Concord, 1987)

Marian McPartland Plays the Music of Mary Lou Williams (Concord, 1994)

Twilight Life (Concord, 2008)

Contributor: Jared Pauley

Related Links

OctoJAZZarian Profile: Marian McPartland by arnold jay smith