Piano Giants of Jazz: Marian McPartland

Celebrating her 100th birthday with an article from the December 1977 issue of Contemporary Keyboard.
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It was once remarked of Marian McPartland that she had three strikes against her in striving for acceptance as an authentic jazz artist: she was British, white, and a woman. If any of those factors was in fact a handicap, she lost little time in proving her ability to overcome all such prejudices.

Born Marian Margaret Turner, in Windsor, England, the descendant of a long line of musicians, Marian came from a very proper British family; she studied violin for five years and won a scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music. After transferring her interest to the keyboard, she made her professional debut in a piano team variety act. The other pianist was Billy Mayerl, strictly a pop artist, but like George Shearing before her, Marian was exposed via records to the sounds of the great American jazz soloists.

During World War II, she toured with an entertainment unit for the British equivalent of the USO. After D-Day she met a GI named Jimmy McPartland, a trumpeter who was in a USO unit in France. Following their marriage in Aachen, Germany, they both took part in a show for General Eisenhower in Paris. Marian arrived in the U.S. as a war bride. Using her stage name, Marian Page, she started a combo with Jimmy. Musically they were an odd couple, he a symbol of the early Dixieland school, she a product of the generation that soon embraced bebop. After they had worked together for a few years, Marian formed her own trio in 1951. It was not long before fellow-pianists heard in her a musician whose harmonic skill and rhythmic acuity continued to grow.

For a while, she seemed uncertain of her direction. It is interesting to observe her solos on three tracks in the album Jazztime U.S.A., in which she accompanied trumpeter Hot Lips Page. At this point she had acquired some skill as a be­bopper but had not yet developed the elegant and delicate essence that would soon mark her recording personality. Three years later, in 1956, on a session with her husband, she re-created the original Bix Beiderbecke piano solo of Bix's remarkably sophisticated 1927 composition In A Mist. Here her playing is more assured and she seems to have a total grasp of the work's unique character.

Throughout the 1950s, Marian spent much of her time in long residencies at the Hickory House, a restaurant on legendary 52nd Street. Except for occasional leaves of absence, she was in that oval bar from early 1952 until 1960. Duke Ellington was a frequent visitor and admirer.

During the 1960s Marian diversified her life in many ways: she wrote the music for an art film, Mark, that won awards at the Edinburgh and Venice festivals, took up song­writing (among her works are "There'll Be Other Times," recorded by Sarah Vaughan, and "Twilight World," recorded by Tony Bennett), and became a capable musicologist, writing for Downbeat and working as a disc jockey on WBAI.

Marian McPartland has served on the committees of various jazz organizations and arts councils; she is of course a member of the Advisory Board of Contemporary Keyboard; and since 1969, while recording occasionally for other labels, she has had her own company, Halcyon Records. One of her most challenging undertakings was a nine-week pilot project in 1974 that required her to instill an understanding of jazz in a group of predominantly black school-children in Washington, D.C., most of whom had been exposed only to soul and R&B music on the radio. With the help of such guest performers as Duke Ellington, she succeeded in this remarkable mission.

Her life lately has been a succession of adventures and surprises. Though no longer married to Jimmy McPartland (in the classic show-biz tradition they are "better friends than ever since the divorce"), she occasionally plays with him at mainstream jazz events such as the Nice Jazz Festival. She has given workshops and lectures at numerous colleges, toured South America in a keyboard package show with Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson, and Ellis Larkins, and made an RCA album as a member of the Jazz Piano Quartet with Dick Hyman, Hank Jones, and Roland Hanna.

Her lyrical ballad "Afterglow," recorded on the album Ambiance, illustrates the degree to which she has expanded from a capable but derivative pianist to a composer and soloist of mature self­confidence. The composition has an impressionistic, almost Bixian quality, introduced in a slow, stately, out-of-tempo passage. The segment reproduced here begins at the point where she moves into a steady pulse. Harmonically, this is a work of deceptive simplicity, superficially not much more than an extended workout of an A minor chord; yet there are many delightful nuances, such as the implied G chord in the right hand in bar 7, the unexpected use of thirds in bar 12, and her very restrained left hand, which makes no attempt to compensate for the absence of a bass player by walking or by exploring the lower register extensively.

Marian McPartland has established herself not only as a brilliant soloist and composer but as a symbol of achievement in a profession heavily dominated by males. Recently she assembled an all-female group for a network TV performance; next March in Kansas City, she will be a principal performer at the first Women's Jazz Festival. Once again, as she has so often during the past, the former nervous neophyte from England will be striking a firm but gentle blow for women's ad lib.