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.

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The Grammys 2011