Marian McPartland, jazz musician and NPR host, dies

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Marian McPartland

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

“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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