Octojazzarian profile: marian mcpartland

For the first time in jazz’s brief century, many leading artists are staying active beyond their 8th decade. OctoJAZZarians is an on-going series celebrating these living legends, pioneers of the art from who were first hand participants in the evolution of America's greatest art form.

Our subject this month is pianist and radio personality Marian McPartland.

by arnold jay smith

“I hate all those words that end in -arian.”

Thus spake Marian McPartland whose music indeed has no time frame. She celebrated her 90th birthday at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola. An all star assemblage feted Lady Marian with some of her songs including the title track from her most recent album Twilight World, (Concord), sung by Karrin Allyson. “I’ve sung it many times and even recorded it,” Allyson said later. Marian couldn’t remember the lyricist, so I offered Johnny Mercer. “Oh, more famous than that,” she said. To some of us more famous than Mercer you don’t get.

              Marian McPartland, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

While cadging together a DVD for a Women In Jazz Festival at NYC’s St. Peter’s Church, at which Marian was honored as a living legend, I came across two videos in which she was featured. The first was made at the Clinton White House. The intense gaze of President Bill while she was speaking of -- then playing -- a Fats Waller tune is worth the balance of that VH1 broadcast. The second was a lecture and demonstration at a school where she took one tune and played it in the many styles of jazz piano from Scott Joplin forward.

“I did a lot of those things for some time,” Marian said. “I traveled as long as I could show youngsters what this music is about. I had a young trio at the time, almost the age of the students.” She has always said that her favorite trio was bassist Bill Crow and drummer Joe Morello, the Hickory House trio.

[Note: The Hickory House was a restaurant on W. 54th St. in NYC that was not a jazz joint per se. It was close by the famed “52nd St.” -- a/k/a “The Street” -- and its brownstone walk-in clubs. Hickory House was noted for its steaks and chops and later for its trios. In addition to Marian’s decade-long tenure there Billy Taylor did a long stint at the Hickory House, as did Mary Lou Williams. See the “Postscript” below for more on McPartland’s Hickory House trio, including anecdotes from Joe Morello and Bill Crow.]

Prior and during the Hickory House stint, Marian played and toured with husband, then ex-husband, then husband redux, cornetist Jimmy McPartland. “We always said that the divorce was a failure,” Marian quipped. “You have to play it right or it just doesn’t come off. We didn’t play the divorce right.”

Speaking of playing it right, Marian studied at London’s Guildhall. “I was already playing by ear since I was three. I had a private teacher for a while but that didn’t take. In school I was badly behaved so my father asked what could he do? The teacher replied that ‘she should be studying music, of course.’” Three years later she was asked to tour with a four-piano show playing “like Frankie Carle. I was in show biz and I never looked back.” It was after Marian met Jimmy, who was still a G.I. and they began working the USO shows during WWII that she started meeting some of her American heroes. “We were in Belgium and I met Dinah Shore, Edward G. Robinson and Fred Astaire.” Then came New York where she met Mary Lou Williams, Hazel Scott and Louis Armstrong. She was as green as one could be in those days being from England and the first time in the Apple. “I remember walking down Broadway with Jimmy showing me the town. We walked by this club where Louis was working, the Aquarium Club. The door was open so we looked in. Louis shouted, ‘Hey, McPartland. Come in here!’ So we did. We were staying at Gene Krupa’s house and went to hear him a lot too.”

The conversation turned to Krupa’s hometown, Chicago, where Jimmy replaced Bix Beiderbecke in the Wolverines. Jimmy and Marian were working in the Windy City not long after they visited NYC, when Jimmy suggested to her that she get her own trio. “He said then I can play whatever I like [trending to] bebop and anybody I can hear on records or see in person.

"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.”

There was a penchant for swinging classical music at that time as another of the 52nd St. crowd, Art Tatum, proudly demonstrated his breathtaking technique on "Humoresque." “You know I had to learn that,” Marian continued. “We went to see [Tatum] who took us to a speakeasy which was just an ordinary house, but when you walked upstairs there was this club in full swing with juke boxes, a big piano, people drinking and carrying on. Tatum sat down [at the piano] and he must have played till 10 o’clock in the morning. Such a quiet house in a quiet neighborhood, you’d never guess there was all this gaiety going on.”

Marian had already met Louis and then Mary Lou, but she didn’t get to play with any of them until Jimmy was playing Eddie Condon’s. “That was the first time I was asked to sit in,” she remembered. “I knew all those traditional tunes, “Ostrich Walk,” “Royal Garden Blues,” all of them.”

Fast forward. Jazz was hot in 1979, for me in particularly. WBGO, our local jazz NPR affiliate, went on the air; Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz program was born, and — dare I even utter in the same breath — my live interview series at the New School called Jazz Insights© began its 26 year run. The first two are extant; the last sadly not. Most of the McP’s Piano Jazz shows have been done in the studio, Sherry Hutchinson producing. But there have been some live: that Hickory House Trio and a tribute to Jimmy McPartland to name but a pair. (Not to be confused with a Jimmy McP tribute hosted by cornetist/Bix and Hoagy Carmichael author Richard Sudhalter.)

Marian spoke of some of her favorite shows. “We got Teddy Wilson to talk, which was not always that easy to do. Mary Lou did my first show and she actually taught me things, on the air. She was very tough. I think she wanted her own show and she was annoyed that I had it. At one point I said, ‘I really liked that chord you played.’ She replied, ‘I didn’t play that chord.’ I didn’t pursue it; it was, after all, my first show and Mary Lou Williams at that. After a while she got mellow, even sang a song. Later we went out to dinner to the Russian Tea Room. We tried to get Count Basie a few times, but I think he was ill. We even announced him in the program guide. We tried to get Earl Hines, too.”

The program had its genesis thanks to songwriter Alec Wilder who had an NPR radio show based on his book American Popular Song. He recommended that Marian do a show and Piano Jazz was the result. “We’re looking forward to a big 30th Anniversary bash in 2009.”

The guest parade actually began at the Hickory House where people like Duke Ellington would fall by for dinner and sometimes play. “Duke’s press agent and the Hickory House’s, Joe Morgan, was the same. A pain in the ass but he did get some good press items. Billy Strayhorn would sit quietly alone in a corner booth,” Marian remembered. “He never played. I often wondered about that, never sitting with Duke. Oscar [Peterson] came by; Artie Shaw, too. Once we had Martin Luther King come in, but I never got to talk to him. He was friends with my bass player at the time, Ben Tucker, composer of “Comin’ Home Baby.” He must be making a fortune from that one song. Steve Allen and Jayne Meadows got engaged there.”

The music was continuous at the Hickory House. John Mehegan was the “intermission” pianist. One night Marian remembered that while she was on he came running down the room shouting, “That should have been a C7! People at the bar had that ‘Who the hell is this guy’ look.” An infrequent visitor Joe Bushkin was at the Embers and Marian was asked to follow him with her trio. Marian: “Joey had taken all his fans with him and nobody knew who I was. The management thought I needed some backup so they brought in Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge which turned into one of the greatest experiences of my life. While I was at the Embers Jimmy was at the Metropole Café.” [Note: The Metropole was a long drinking joint on Broadway not far from 52nd St. where the bands played on the long bar. It was rarely quiet so the bands had to play louder than the clientele. Krupa and Cozy Cole had a drum school upstairs. It (and the original Birdland) became a Gentlemen’s Club.]

I asked Marian if there were any reunions of the Austin High Gang, the band of Chicagoans with whom Jimmy had played “They had disbanded but there was one where we played the Blue Note in Chicago with Gene Krupa and Bud Freeman. [What was more interesting is that] we played opposite Billie Holiday. Mousey Alexander was our drummer.

An underplayed side of Marian’s success is as a songwriter. The melodies have been in her repertoire for years but, as we all know, it’s only when we hear a lyric that we remember the tune. Such is the case with “Twilight World” and an earlier one “The Days of Our Love,” lyrics by Peggy Lee, which has been famously recorded by Cleo Laine and Jackie Cain.

To conclude the long phone interview, for good measure, Marian reiterated that she “hates that word ‘blog.’ I don’t have a computer; I don’t have email. I do have a website, but I don’t know what’s on it. That’s all she wrote.”

And we have Marian McPartland.

Postscript: The Hickory House Trio:

Bill Crow was a self-taught bass player at the time he met Marian and he said he was struggling with difficult keys. “Marian loved all those keys,” Crow said. “She improved my playing just by pushing me to play in every key.” He remembered getting a lot of solo space.

Visitors to the centrally located stage atop the bar played an integral part in Crow’s career: “Jackie [Cain] and Roy [Kral] came by and hired Joe [Morello] and me for a record date. British pianist/vibist Victor Feldman liked the way we sounded together and we recorded his first American album. Unfortunately the record company lost the tapes.”

Marian occasionally took the trio on the road to places like Detroit and Columbus, Ohio, where they had more than just one-nighters. “We met the greats,” Crow remembered. “Not only would Jimmy [McPartland] sit in but in between rounds of golf we would be joined by some of Jimmy’s Chicago and trad pals: Vic Dickinson, Pee Wee Russell, Marty Napoleon, Bud Freeman, Herb Hall, Eddie Condon and Yank Lawson. I even got to work with some of them.”

Crow related how the writers from Down Beat and Metronome were always asking Joe Morello to compare himself to Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, then the marquee names. Crow: “Hating to make those comparisons, Joe invented a fictitious drummer named Marvin Bonessa who [Joe] claimed was better than all of them. He claimed that Marvin was reclusive, wouldn’t record and wouldn’t give interviews, but was head and shoulders above all other drummers in both technique and imagination. Marian and I and Joe’s friend [guitarist] Sal Salvador joined in the conspiracy. We had writers going crazy trying to locate Marvin. I think he even got nominated in one of the Down Beat polls.”

I first laid ears on Morello when he was with Dave Brubeck at a 1956 Brooklyn College concert. I was stunned by his phenomenal left hand and asked him if he hadn’t been a left-hander. Crow now tells the story. “Joe had developed a finger system with which he could keep a string of eighth notes going with just his left forefinger controlling the drumsticks. Then he would add accents by using his wrist.” Crow was fooling around with sticks on breaks on a pad made up of a folded napkin. Eventually he figured out the Morello finger system. “I could do that one trick so that when a visiting drummer would marvel at his control, Joe would say, ‘Oh, anybody can do that even my bass player.’ Joe would hand me a stick and I’d do the trick.” I would have loved to have seen the looks on those visiting drummers’ faces.

Morello remembered coming to NYC “at the starvation level. My friend Sal Salvador, then with the [Stan] Kenton band, told me of this British girl [sic] who was looking for a drummer. I’d never heard of her but Sal had evidently told her about me. Mousey Alexander, who was playing drums with her, had this big bass drum which was booming so I remember not using it too much.” Morello would drop down to the Hickory House once a week or so and sit in. During one of his visits he remembered Marian pointing him out to a guitarist. That introduction led to a long association with the legendary Johnny Smith, first for three weeks at the original Birdland, then to the more posh East Side boîte The Embers. Then came the calls. “I couldn’t believe it; first Stan Kenton, who was at Birdland, wanted me to sub for Stan Levey who went into hospital for something. The next day Marian calls for me to replace Mousey who wanted to go with Sauter-Finegan.” Seems everything that happened for him in NYC had Marian attached. “Even though we’d travel, New York and the Hickory House was always home base.”


May 02, 2008 · 6 comments

  • 1 TOOTS // May 04, 2008 at 05:40 AM
    Thank you for bringing the story to the public. There are so many subjects that it fills the mind with wonder.
  • 2 Marissa Dodge // May 09, 2008 at 06:12 AM
    I really dug this profile, Arnold. The bits of humor and details truly made it memorable. The wondrous M-arian, what's not to love! She's one of my all time favorites. The more I learn about the musicians I love to listen to, the more it brings to the music, so thanks for the words to go with the notes. Blessings & jazz, Marissa
  • 3 dan grucza // May 23, 2008 at 08:41 PM
    i saw marian in 1954 at the hickory house.duke was there, and buddy defranco sat in. dave garoway from the morning show came in for break-fast at about 4am. it was one fascinating evening
  • 4 Mark R. Stephens // Jun 08, 2008 at 01:57 AM
    This is a fantastic piece or work on Ms. McPartland. It was fun re-living the times with you.
  • 5 Naomi Swickle // Jun 29, 2008 at 06:39 PM
    I try to listen to Marion McPartland Piano Jazz on KJZZfm, here in Arizona, Saturday nights whenever possible! I saw her live at a theater in Teanck, NJ years back when I was living in that state. Thank you, Marion, for many wonderful shows!
  • 6 Chris Albertson // Aug 15, 2008 at 03:35 PM
    Nice piece on a wonderful lady and artist, Arnold. Did you know that Marian's side career as a radio host actually began on WBAI around 1966?