Continuing Education

Marian McPartland Accrues Style Bit by Bit

Marian McPartland's learning curve is apparently infinite, an Escher-like, Velcro-covered loop that keeps picking up incremental details as it winds its way through jazz for six decades, turning what began as a generic approach into something personal. Her early-'50s records, made at the start of her eight-year engagement at the Hickory House, reveal a gifted pianist with accomplished technique and a passable understanding of contemporary currents. But her playing was often polite—stylish without suggesting much individual style. Yet even by that time, Margaret Marian Turner of Windsor, England, had wended her way through much music history, forging her approach with at least as much stubborn persistence as natural talent.

She was born in 1918, and began playing by ear; years of formal study followed, but in her early teens she discovered jazz and begin imitating records. "I just played everything," she told me a few years ago, on the occasion of her widely celebrated 80th birthday: "Duke Ellington was my big inspiration, and then I tried to play like Teddy Wilson." She won a few scholarships, including one that enrolled her in London's Guildhall School of Music, which she abandoned before graduation to go out on a tour in vaudeville. In 1944, while entertaining troops in Belgium, she met trumpeter and Beiderbecke acolyte Jimmy McPartland. Stationed deep in the Ardennes, he came to her rescue by commandeering a grand piano from a family of Nazi sympathizers so that she could play a concert. They married and settled in New York in 1946, and though her work with Jimmy was Dixieland, she instantly began to soak up the forces of modernism, asking and receiving advice from Bud Powell and Lennie Tristano, among others, and leading her own trio with Bill Crow and Joe Morello.

"Starting out with Jimmy was a great way to break into show business, so on any day I can play in his Dixieland style, but I'm also part Teddy Wilson, part bebop, part Bill Evans. I'd like to be part Wayne Shorter." By the 1970s, those parts and others had contributed to a redefinition of her playing—ballads slowed to a meditative crawl and parsed with extended rests; medium-tempo flourishes spelled with blues locutions and a near-rococo infusion of passing chords; uptempo aggression in which time is spiked with occasionally pugnacious syncopations. Her improvisations hadn't lost an iota of charm, but were no longer reliably decorous or even-tempered. She developed an unusually expansive book that included the expected standards, with a particular accent on Alec Wilder (her self-produced 1973 Marian McPartland Plays the Music of Alec Wilder, with bassist Michael Moore, marked a turning point), as well as originals and a plethora of jazz works that few others bothered to investigate.

An infinite learning curve
photo: Elizabeth Annas
An infinite learning curve

McPartland's individuality accrued, partly a result of discriminating add-ons; she doesn't leap out like McCoy Tyner or Bill Evans, unmistakable from the first note. Yet, like them, she plays with a clarity that allows you to hear her think. A relatively trite instance occurs at the end of "While We're Young," on her Piano Jazz entry with Evans, when she plays what you expect to be the penultimate note and sits on it, pondering whether or not to resolve it, and finally deciding not. A more telling example is her smashing 1991 Live at Maybeck recital, a rare instance of McPartland alone. Her thought processes are on tap throughout a thoroughly engaging "Willow Weep for Me," the requisite funk tonality used sparingly, dressed in the finery of richly hued chords. A passage in "My Funny Valentine" gets down with a Dave McKenna-like bassline, but not for long, because she is more interested in a rhapsodic extension of the melody and its harmonies. She revives Ellington's "Clothed Woman," which combines a striding melody (reminiscent of "Black Beauty") with a modernist framework, and offers something similar on her own in "Theme From Piano Jazz," mixing boogie woogie and dissonance. For an example of her clean, decisive, rigorous blues work, she chooses as her starting gate Ornette Coleman's "Turnaround."

Taking an opposite tack, she merged her trio with a 20-piece string orchestra in 1996 for Silent Pool, commenting at the time, "I was afraid people would say I sounded like Mantovani or something." Alan Broadbent's dark, stately arrangements of a dozen McPartland originals forestall that, but the main interest is the lucid way she navigates her part, taking stock every measure, a quality no less evident on her latest recording, Live at Shanghai Jazz, taped last year with Rufus Reid and Joe Morello; it begins with Mary Lou Williams's cheerful "Scratchin' in the Gravel" and settles into a vividly contemplative de facto trilogy of "Moon and Sand," "Prelude to a Kiss" (she's inhabited its harmonies for so long that she can bend them in any direction), and "All the Things You Are."

McPartland's running dialogue with jazz has also taken shape in educational and literary pursuits—an anthology of the latter was published as All in Good Time. But the truest measure of her involvement is the incomparable Piano Jazz series, with which she has served NPR since 1978. Like many people who haven't turned on a radio in years, I know the show because dozens of installments appeared as CDs on Jazz Alliance—a wing of Concord Jazz, which released all the albums mentioned here. They've now gone out of catalog, but on August 27 Jazz Alliance will put out four volumes: reissues of Bill Evans (1978) and Oscar Peterson (1980) and, for the first time, Carmen McRae (1985) and Chick Corea (2001). They are oddly intimate portraits, combining music and conversation as McPartland and guest sit at two Baldwins (she has also done shows with nonpianists), exchanging pleasantries yet somehow getting to deeper levels of jazz talk than you expect. The courtliness of it all, and the focus on music-making with only scattered touches of biography, elicit an ingenuous desire to reveal and explain. McPartland, who has chatted and duetted with everyone from Eubie Blake to Cecil Taylor, never gets technical, though first-name references are not uncommon. The drama takes place during duets, as the game host attempts to blend in with the guest, soaking up the unusual chord or key change.

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