Earlier this week, on August 20, 2013, famed jazz pianist and radio show host Marian McPartland died of natural causes at her home in New York state. She was 95.
There isn’t much about her I can say that hasn’t already been said better by others, but I do feel that I should at least give you the basics. She was born Margaret Marian Turner in England on March 20, 1918. She developed an interest, almost an obsession, with the piano at an early age after hearing her mother play.
Later she studied piano formally, eventually finding herself playing for the troops during WWII. It was during that time that she met Jimmy McPartland, a coronet player. They married and moved to the US, and in the early 1950’s they landed in New York City, where McPartland soon cultivated a friendship with fellow pianist Mary Lou Williams. Jazz at the time was and had been for some time considered “a man’s world,” and women players were considered an oddity.
In April 1979 McPartland parleyed a gig as a DJ into a program called “Piano Jazz.” Little did she know that day, with first guest Billy Taylor sitting across from her, that “Piano Jazz” would go on to run on NPR for 40 years.
While “Piano Jazz” may prove to be her lasting legacy, the fact is that throughout her lifetime she played piano regularly, and recorded many albums along the way. I am a bit limited in my choice of which album to discuss because, I’m sorry to say, I have only one of McPartland’s albums in my personal collection.
This is nothing against her, but the fact is an average guy like myself, who works for a living, pretty much paycheck to paycheck, simply can’t afford to buy the complete oeuvre of every great musician out there. It’s just not practical. And since no record labels or promoters are currently providing me with even new releases, let alone backlist albums, my choices are limited.*
So. The album I’m going to talk about is McPartland’s 2002 trio recording, “Live At Shanghai Jazz” on the Concord label.
On this date she had her trio with her, and they were:
Marian McPartland, piano
Rufus Reid, bass
Joe Morello, drums
It’s only appropriate that the album opens with a tune from her old friend, Mary Lou Williams: “Scratchin’ In The Gravel.” This is a great song made all the more so by the ability of these three players to anticipate and complement each other’s every move. McPartland and Morello had a long history, having played together way back in the 1950’s, before Dave Brubeck snatched Morello away from her. “Scratchin’ In The Gravel” is a bouncy song that will grip you from start to finish.
“Pensativa” from Clare Fischer starts out as a slow, quiet ballad, but thanks to Morello’s bright, sparkling cymbals it still manages to keep the energy flowing.
Likewise the Cole Porter tune “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To” begins quietly but builds, and this time it’s Reid’s bass line that drives everyone forward. The audience loved this one, and it’s easy to see why. The only thing more boring than a bass solo is a drum solo, but in the hands of people who are the undisputed masters of their instruments, well, a solo is a thing of beauty and wonder. Throw in a pianist at the top of her form, who plays with the confidence that comes from decades of experience, and you have a winner on your hands.
The Duke Ellington song “Just Squeeze Me (But Don’t Tease Me) is one that I don’t believe I’ve heard before, at least not that I remember. McPartland’s work on this one sounds effortless, which of course is the hallmark of a professional. It’s hard to tell who is leading whom here, frankly. McPartland has some very forceful moments where she is obviously running and daring the boys to keep up with her.
Bassist Reid collaborated with “The Who” guitarist Pete Townsend to write the song, “I Can’t Explain.” This is another quiet little ballad, not like anything you would expect from an animated rock legend like Townsend, but there you are. Life is full of what can at first appear to be unlikely surprises, and this is a very beautiful song, if short.
Speaking of collaborations (and surprises), McPartland and Morello joined forces to write “A Snare And A Delusion.” This song is highly unusual and for once I find myself wishing I had had formal training as a musician so I could more fairly, and more accurately, evaluate it. The audience applauds at the end, but it sounds to me that their response was more out of courtesy than appreciation.
“A Snare And A Delusion,” as strange as it sounds to me, may very well be technically a brilliant piece of music. I don’t know. I’ll leave it to others more qualified than I to discuss that aspect. Perhaps one day I will come to appreciate it more. That day won’t be today. 😉
The last song on “Live At Shanghai Jazz” that I am going to mention is my favorite, the McPartland composition “Shanghai Blues.” Unlike “A Snare And A Delusion,” “Shanghai Blues” is an excellent piece of melodic music. It sounds like music, with all three musicians giving it their all. Everyone takes a solo, of course, and even the dreaded drum solo comes across sounding great. The audience loved this one, and the applause at the end sounds like anything but politeness in action.
I won’t pretend that I have been a huge fan of Marian McPartland all along. I hadn’t actually “discovered” her yet, even though I obviously had heard of her and knew who she was, and I do have a copy of this one album. From what I’ve learned about her today while researching this article, I have to say that the loss is obviously mine.
For seven decades, because of her music and her radio show, Marian McPartland was known and her work was loved by people all over the world.
To say “she will be missed” is an understatement.
The Marian McPartland Trio’s 2002 album, “Live At Shanghai Jazz,” will make a fine addition to your personal playlist, for a Saturday or any other night.
To find out more about Marian McPartland and her music, here are some links you can check out.
Someone else’s take on this same album, from jazzreview.com.
Marian’s obituary in the New York Times.
Ditto, from the jazz folks at NPR.
Ditto, from the folks at The Guardian in Britain.
Returning to the New York Times, Nora Jones remembers McPartland.
I was not able to find any videos of the songs on this album, but I did find a couple of things you may find interesting.
Here are Marian and Jimmy McPartland in 1960, playing the theme from the “Peter Gunn” TV series:
And here is Marian with another great pianist we lost just a few months ago, Dave Brubeck:
And, last but not least, here is the complete episode of “Piano Jazz” featuring Marian and Steely Dan:
Thank you for reading this.
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Copyright © 2013 by Al Evans. All rights reserved.