Marian McPartland, jazz musician and NPR host, dies

Pianist Marian McPartland introduced jazz to millions with her long-running radio show "Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz" and shattered glass ceilings for women in jazz. She died Tuesday at age 95.

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Marian McPartland

Jazz pianist Marian McPartland. McPartland died of natural causes at the age of 95. (Chicago Sinfonietta)

If Marian McPartland had done nothing more than bring jazz to millions of listeners through her long-running National Public Radio program “Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz,” she would rank among the most important figures in the art form.

But she also defied sexist conventions in the still macho, male-dominated world of jazz, establishing more than half a century ago that a woman could thrive as bandleader, composer, soloist, record executive – you name it.

That she did all this as a Brit in an art form that still identifies itself as America’s singular contribution to world musical culture only magnifies the stature of her achievements.

McPartland died peacefully Tuesday in her longtime home in Long Island, N.Y., at age 95, according to NPR. No cause of death was given.

“What she did for the genre in general – for one individual to make that impact on an entire category of music is staggering,” said pianist Jon Weber, who succeeded McPartland on NPR and hosts the retitled “Piano Jazz with Jon Weber.”

“Marian McPartland was a tribute to jazz, not only in her performances and innovations, but she was always available to talk about the music, to teach, to reach out to people,” said pianist Ramsey Lewis.

“She set the stage for a woman being a serious artist, but not having to wear a low-cut dress,” said singer-pianist Judy Roberts. “She showed it’s possible to be a woman piano player without having to be girly and do the things that I saw other people doing. She could be totally sophisticated, no-nonsense, taken very seriously by the sidemen.”

As a keyboardist, “She was incredible,” said pianist Willie Pickens. “She knew so many tunes – obscure tunes. She knew a lot of harmony.

“I used to call her the ‘Elegant Lady of Jazz.’”

McPartland exuded high sophistication in her music, though her between-song patter was consistently light-hearted and non-threatening. That rare combination – deep musical erudition and a wholly unpretentious manner – helped make her “Piano Jazz” show an American broadcast institution from 1979 to 2011.

Still, her thirst for bringing new sounds to “Piano Jazz,” in which she typically interviewed and duetted with the guest, triggered resistance.

“When we first started the show, in 1979, we had a producer who was kind of a purist – he wanted the ‘old guard’ on the program,” McPartland told the Tribune in 1995.

“In fact, when I booked (pianist) Herbie Hancock, my producer didn’t think that was the kind of person we should be having on ‘Piano Jazz’ at all. I disagreed – I thought we were lucky to get someone as great as Herbie.”

McPartland usually succeeded in booking major, often innovative players, her guest list including jazz titans such as Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson and eclectic artists, such as “Late Show with David Letterman” piano man Paul Shaffer, classical pianist Ruth Laredo, country singer Willie Nelson and pop artist Alicia Keys.

Through this work, McPartland brought jazz – sometimes considered a rarefied music – to a wider audience than any club or concert hall could reach.

But McPartland fought long and hard to achieve all this. Born Margaret Marian Turner on March 20, 1918, she began noodling Chopin waltzes at the piano in her home in Windsor, England, when she was 3, but her ear quickly gravitated to the sounds she heard on radio and record: Duke Ellington, Mary Lou Williams, Hazel Scott, Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson and James P. Johnson, she told the Tribune.

After a few months of childhood lessons on piano and two tortuous years on violin (at her mother’s insistence), she taught herself to play piano well enough to gain admission to London’s Guildhall School of Music – which she endured for three years.

“One day a professor heard me in the practice room, and he opened the door while I was trying to play like (Art) Tatum, and he said, ‘Stop playing that trash,’” McPartland told the Tribune in 1994. “And that really made me want to do jazz all the more, because right after that I went (touring) with a four-piano vaudeville act, and I never could go back home again. My parents were horrified.”

Indeed, her father offered her money to turn down the job with the vaudevillians, Billy Mayerl and His Claviers, but she renamed herself Marian Page, quit school and hit the road. While playing USO shows across Europe during World War II she met the great Chicago cornetist Jimmy McPartland, a key member of the city’s fabled Austin High Gang of young white musicians inspired in the 1920s by black and Creole New Orleans jazzmen who had brought the music to Chicago.

The couple were married in Europe in 1945 and moved to Chicago the next year, Jimmy McPartland constantly encouraging his bride to stake her ground as a Chicago jazz musician.

“Jimmy was always saying to me, ‘You should have your own group, you should do your own thing,’” Marian McPartland told the Tribune in 1994. “So he helped me get started with my own trio. And that’s the way it’s been.”

If Marian McPartland’s jazz career took root in Chicago, it flowered in New York, where the couple moved in 1949. She became a noteworthy figure at the Hickory House, on 52nd Street, especially for her trio with drummer Joe Morello and bassist Bill Crow.

And when rock ’n’ roll knocked jazz out of the pop marketplace, McPartland refused to accept the idea that she couldn’t get a decent record deal, so she founded her own label, Halcyon.

Stan Kenton had his own record company, and Charles Mingus did, so I thought, ‘I’ll start my own,’” which she did in 1970, she explained in a 2008 Tribune interview marking her 90th birthday.

“It was hard work – finding a distributor, selecting art, hiring musicians – but it was wonderful, too,” added McPartland, who ran Halcyon for more than 15 years, recording pianists Earl Hines, Ellis Larkins, Teddy Wilson, Dave McKenna and, naturally, herself.

Songwriter and raconteur Alec Wilder, who had a radio show of his own, recommended her as host of “Piano Jazz,” which from its first broadcasts in 1979 unfolded as a potpourri of conversation and performance. And though earlier jazz women – such as pianists Lil Hardin and Mary Lou Williams – paved the way for McPartland, she took the cause to a far larger media platform.

Along the way, men in jazz were not always kind to her.

“I used to hear things like, ‘You play great for a girl.’ Or, ‘You play just like a man,’” McPartland told the Tribune in 1994, reflecting on her start as a bandleader in the U.S.

“At that (early) point in my career, I was so pleased to get any compliment that I took that to mean that they liked my playing.

“But after a while I thought, ‘What do they mean by that?’”

The McPartlands, who divorced in 1970 but remained close friends and neighbors on Long Island and remarried shortly before his death in 1991 at age 83, never had children. But if they had, Marian McPartland said, she would not have allowed it to derail her work.

“I sort of had it in my mind that if that happened, we were going to take the kid on the road,” McPartland told the Tribune in 1994. “I would not lay off.”

The example she set was profound for emerging jazz women.

“In my day, who else was there that could show you they could play great, be classy and not resort to cleavage or antics,” said Roberts, who recalls hearing McPartland at Chicago’s London House when Roberts was launching her career, in the 1960s. “She was classy, played her butt off, handled the band real well … and she was brilliant.”

At the piano, McPartland showed a refined touch and an ability toss off fugues that were beyond the reach of many of her colleagues. “She was a romanticist, if you will,” said Lewis.

Her compositions, such as the oft-played “Twilight World,” showed the depth of her understanding of harmony.

“She’d play these majestic chords,” said pianist Roberts. “She was a master of voicings, just the most beautiful player, yet she could swing real hard.”

Added saxophonist Greg Fishman, Roberts’ husband, “She could just play anything in any key, at any time.”

McPartland was widely celebrated for her accomplishments. She received her adopted country’s highest honor, a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship, a George Foster Peabody Award, the Gracie Allen Award from the American Women in Radio and Television and was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame. She received many honorary degrees and a Grammy Trustees Award for lifetime achievement. Her “Piano Jazz” shows have been released on CD and are archived at npr.org; a collection of her jazz profiles was published in book form as “Marian McPartland’s Jazz World: All in Good Time” (University of Illinois Press); and last year critic Paul de Barros published the biography “Shall We Play That One Together?”

In addition to her releases on her Halcyon album, McPartland recorded more than 50 albums in 29 years with Concord Jazz, her last, “Twilight World,” released in 2008.

Though age slowed her down, she remained characteristically defiant.

“I fractured my pelvis – stupidly, tripping over something in my bedroom – but I’m over it now,” she told the Tribune in 2008. “I’ve got such bad arthritis in my knees I can’t walk, but my hands are OK, I still can play.”

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

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