RIP: Marian McPartland, jazz pianist and broadcaster, b March 20 1918, d August 20 2013
Great Day in Harlem: Marian, Mary Lou and Monk
Jazz can be proud of its anti-racist traditions and of how, from the early twentieth century, black and white musicians defied Jim Crow in order to work together to make great music. Jazz played a major role in the civil rights movement and – long before the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson for the 1946 season – helped convince white America that black people were at least their equals, and had an awful lot to contribute to the American Way Of Life, if only given the chance.
Jazz’s record on sexism and women’s rights is less honourable. Until quite recently, women were scarcely tolerated in jazz, and even then only as fans, hangers-on and singers. The few female instrumentalists that there were in the 1930s, 40s and 50s tended to be treated with condescension or (as with pianist Mary Lou Williams, whose talent could not be denied), as novelties if not downright freaks.
When British-born pianist Marian McPartland arrived in the US in 1946, having married the American cornetist Jimmy McPartland, the influential jazz critic Leonard Feather (himself a Brit) declared, “Oh, she’ll never make it: she’s English, white and a woman.”
Marian went on to prove him, and many other detractors, wrong. On her arrival in America, she sought out the great Mary Lou Williams and, no doubt, received some tips about “making it” in the macho world of the US jazz scene. And she didn’t depend upon the reputation or the contacts of her husband Jimmy: he was a well-established “hot” traditionalist (“Dixielander” if you must) who’d taken over from Bix Beiderbecke in the Wolverine Orchestra in the 1920s, whereas she had more modern ideas and was more at home with bop and post-bop players. In the famous 1958 ‘Great Day in Harlem’ photograph Marian stands at the front with Mary Lou Williams, Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins. Husband Jimmy isn’t present, though cronies like George Wettling, Bud Freeman and Pee Wee Russell are there, forming a distinct little group a couple of rows behind Marian.
By that time, in any case, the McPartland marriage was in trouble, due at least in part to Jimmy’s heavy drinking. Marian, meanwhile, began a long-standing affair with drummer Joe Morello. Jimmy and Marian finally divorced in 1972, but remained friends and continued to work with each other from time to time. Jimmy even quipped: “All married people (should) get divorced and start treating each other like human beings.”
Further unpleasantness in Marian’s life was caused by Benny Goodman, who in 1963 asked her to join his band only to decide that he didn’t like her playing after all, giving her a miserable time on tour, and driving her into therapy. Marian eventually sort-of forgave Goodman, noting that he had unwittingly done her a favour: her time in therapy gave her an opportunity to re-think her life and resulted in a second career as a radio broadcaster specialising in interviews with fellow jazz musicians. Her series Piano Jazz on NPR ran for 33 years and was syndicated throughout America and beyond (though regrettably, not in the UK). Marian said she treated her role as an interviewer in the same way as she approached working in a jazz group: knowing when to contribute, and when to shut up. The show began, in 1978, with Marion interviewing and playing alongside fellow jazz pianists, as in this wonderful encounter with Dick Wellstood. But the show evolved (perhaps as Marian became more confident) and she eventually began interviewing non pianists and, indeed, musicians who might not, strictly, be considered jazz at all: here she is with members of Steely Dan.
But Marian remained active as a pianist, and her stylistic range continued to develop. She continued to perform in public until her late 80s and before she turned 90, composed a symphonic piece, A Portrait of Rachel Carson in memory of the author of the environmental book Silent Spring.
And throughout it all, she and Jimmy remained friends. In fact, just before Jimmy died in 1991, they remarried.
Here they are, playing together at a jam session in 1975. It’s more Jimmy’s scene than Marian’s: most of the musicians are old cronies from the 1920s, 30s and 40s (note the presence of violinist Joe Venuti, for instance). But it’s a great opportunity to see and hear Jimmy and Marian playing together. The marriage may have had its ups and downs, but the music was always great:
New York Times obit, here.
Marian McPartland: A Life in Jazz (2009 tribute), here.