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.
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.
All are worth hearing, and the Evans is a classic. It begins with him playing the original written version of “Waltz With Debbie” and quickly evolves into a demonstration of Evans’s ideas about displacing rhythms. A born teacher, he discusses the need to know a tune’s changes (“Intuition has to lead knowledge, but it can’t be out there alone”), while dismissing the need for group rehearsal—everything develops on the job, he says; in 20 years, the trio rehearsed maybe four times, usually before concert recordings. Most of the Piano Jazz shows have sent me back to records I’d forgotten or overlooked. For one example, while insisting he lacks the “dimension” to be a solo pianist, Evans laughingly refers to the endlessly repeated melody of his 1975 “People” (Alone Again on Fantasy); lo and behold, a performance I once thought dreary re-emerges, “Nefertiti”-like, as a subtly impassioned tour de force—albeit not one I’m likely to play very often. He speaks of his early idols, of how he started off with boogie woogie, of the weddings and socials he played, including a polka band at Manville Polish Home, then plays Toots Thieleman’s alternating-keys arrangement of “Days of Wine and Roses,” transfigures Ellington’s “Reflections in D,” and raves about Marian’s “While We’re Young.”
Peterson begins with a highly Tatum-esque reading of “Old Folks,” and shows how he uses minor seconds to “thicken” the harmony. McPartland picks it up and says, “See, already I copped something and it’s only the first tune.” He says most pianists are ambidextrous, at least in their thoughts. She says, “I am in my thoughts, but watch me when I get to the piano.” Peterson’s in a stomping mood, demonstrating broken tenths as compared with striding octaves, telling funny anecdotes, chivalrously cradling McPartland’s choruses, which are sometimes shaky, though she adds pretty chords to “Like Someone in Love.” He reveals that what she thought was his variation on “Satin Doll” is an interpolation of an old and obscure song: “You mean you don’t recall ‘Auf Wiedersehen’?” (Who knew he was a wit? Yet other examples abound in his remarkable memoir, A Jazz Odyssey, published by Continuum; his comments about Bud Powell are ludicrous, but his Lester Young stories more than compensate.) McPartland’s best showing, not surprisingly, is her solo, “Willow Creek.” Carmen McRae was in great voice for her hour, and the sound balance and casualness underscore its crisp directness. Clearly enjoying McPartland, she is uncharacteristically genial. Though her piano is percussive and efficient, each note struck with confidence, it’s no match for McPartland’s technique, which supplies her with a gently radiant boost. They talk about modern tunes and McRae pays homage to James Taylor (“Fire and Rain” is a “cute tune,” McPartland avers); yet when asked to perform a new song, she prefers Jule Styne and Harold Arlen. Chick Corea’s hour begins with platitudes (“music is life”) and the through-composed “Brasilia,” but grows deeper and more candid as he is encouraged to explore Monk and Waller and a few of his own early benchmarks. Blue Note has just reissued his masterly 1968 trio album Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, which had a huge impact in its day and stands up as well as anything he’s done. It was a favorite of McPartland’s (she concedes less interest in his fusion period), but although she can’t get him to revisit “Matrix” or “Windows,” her limpid version of “Crystal Silence” stimulates them both, leading to a completely free piece and a redoubtable capper in “Spain”—from which Marian McPartland no doubt picked up a few more tricks.