Marian McPartland is probably best known today as a pioneering jazz radio host (NPR's Piano Jazz) and the grande dame of the jazz piano. But starting back in the 1950s, Marian was one of bebop's most graceful and nimble messengers. Equally well versed in Dixieland, stride and other forms of early jazz that she grew up with in pre-war England, McPartland had one of the tenderest touches of the period and the deepest knowledge of songs. In fact, today her ability to play the melodies of thousands of well-known and obscure songs is legendary.
When you chat with Marian, you quickly realize that she talks the way she plays. Despite years in the United States, her speaking voice retains a lilting, proper London accent while her thought process is metronome firm and measured. But Marian also is surprisingly curious, making time at the end of our conversation to ask numerous questions with follow-up questions. And her queries weren't reflexively polite. She was genuinely interested to learn and understand. [Pictured: The Marian McPartland Trio at New York's Hickory House in 1956]
In Part 1 of my two-part interview series with Marian, 91, the pianist talks about growing up in England, how she became interested in jazz, her first professional gig playing in a four-piano band, and meeting cornetist and her future husband Jimmy McPartland in war-torn Belgium:
JazzWax: You grew up in the 1930s, just outside London.
Marian McPartland: Yes, I was born in Slough, near Windsor. My father was working at a place call the Woolwich Arsenal [a train station]. Soon we moved to Bromley, a suburban town in southeast London.
JW: You took to the piano pretty quickly, yes?
MM: I guess I did pick up music quickly. Just hearing my mother play made me interested, and I learned to play almost everything I heard. At age 3, I started to play a Chopin piece that I had heard my mother play.
JW: Who introduced you to jazz?
MM: I heard it every day on the radio in the 1930s. My younger sister was friends with this guy who tried to interest her in jazz.
JW: How did he do?
MM: Not very well. She wasn’t very interested. I just loved jazz. So he switched from her to me [laughs] because I was fascinated with the music. When I started to play jazz on the piano, my parents would simply say, “Very nice, dear.” So I decided to follow my heart and become a professional musician. Now when audiences applaud, I suppose they're also saying, “Very nice, dear” [laughs].
JW: What type of jazz were you listening to in England?
MM: All of the jazz that came before bebop—Benny Goodman, Fats Waller and Duke Ellington, who I adored.
JW: Were you romantically involved with your sister’s friend?
MM: Oh no. He was just somebody to play records with. I loved hearing the music, which helped my playing. I played piano throughout secondary school, what you call high school. Playing piano was my claim to fame, my saving grace. I wasn’t very good scholastically. To play piano and have all the girls crowd around was wonderful. I was a big ham. I loved it.
JW: Did you go to music school?
MM: When I was in my teens, I went to the Guildhall School of Music [pictured]. I tried to play classical music but it wasn’t working out. I stayed at Guildhall for three years, but I was already heavily into jazz. I had come to the school thinking I would become a concert pianist. But I really wasn’t that great. Jazz was the most important thing in my life.
JW: When did you start playing jazz professionally?
MM: In 1938. A guy named Billy Mayerl, a famous English pop pianist, heard me playing locally and invited me to join his group. He was taking a band on the road—a novelty group that featured four pianos. He called his group Billy Mayerl and His Claviers. Of course, I wanted to be part of this thing.
JW: What did your parents think?
MM: They were horrified that I would want to do such a thing, that I would want to go on the road with a bunch of people they didn’t think were high-class.
JW: You went anyway?
MM: Of course I went. I was determined. This was just before World War II, and I learned a lot on that tour. When the tour ended, I started working at odd jobs playing two pianos with another girl in a theater. I did a lot of things like that.
JW: The blitz in 1940 and 1941 must have been horrible.
MM: It was. The bombs were terrible. When the war came, I was given the choice of being an entertainer or joining the women’s army, which of course I didn’t want to do. So I joined the English Entertainments National Service Association.
JW: What did the association do?
MM: You entertained troops all over the country. So I did that. Then after America entered the war, I joined USO camp shows and went to France with the first group after D-Day in 1944. We worked our way through Belgium playing different places. If there was no place to play, we'd play on the back of a flatbed truck or in various coffee houses. We played anyplace that was big enough. We finally got to a place called Leuven in Belgium. We stayed in a hotel instead of army facilities.
JW: What was special about that town?
MM: It’s where I met [cornetist] Jimmy [McPartland]. He was a foot soldier when I met him.
JW: How did you wind up touring together in the USO?
MM: His commanding officer heard him playing the cornet and said, “This man should be playing his horn. He shouldn’t be manning a gun.” So he put Jimmy with the USO group. On the tour, I played whatever Jimmy played. Only much later did I learn that there was something called Chicago jazz and that Jimmy was one of its originators. To me, jazz was jazz.
JW: How did you get along with McPartland?
MM: Great. We quickly fell in love and got married in Belgium, courtesy of the army. They gave us permission to wed. We played with the USO band until the war ended. Then we came to the States, to New York. We spent a few days in New York, staying at Gene Krupa’s house. Jimmy took me to Eddie Condon’s to hear Gene play. I was amazed.
JW: Did you stay in New York?
MM: No, we left for Chicago, and I played with him there for quite a while.
JW: Tough being a female jazz piano player back then?
MM: Nothing was said about me being a woman because I was with Jimmy. Back in New York several years later, he helped me start my own trio. That’s when I found out there weren’t that many women piano players. But I was still one of the lucky ones. Being married to Jimmy, when I wanted to hire someone, no one ever turned me down. I’m sure a lot of female players who weren’t married to well-known musicians were turned down all the time by great male sidemen. [Pictured: Mary Lou Williams and Marian McPartland in the 1950s]
JW: Was jazz easy for women back then?
MM: It took a long time for women to become equal to men in jazz. Jazz was considered male music, and women didn’t play it nearly as well as men did. When I opened at the Hickory House in 1952, Leonard Feather [pictured] wrote in a review that said, “Marian McPartland will never make it. She’s English, white and a woman” [laughs].
JW: Did that bother you?
MM: Not at all. It was good publicity. Leonard always said he meant it as a joke. But I don’t think he knew that when he wrote it.
Tomorrow, Marian talks about Jimmy McPartland, playing at the Hickory House on 52nd St. in the 1950s, playing for Duke Ellington, her most intriguing guest on NPR's Piano Jazz, how Bill Evans broke her heart and her biggest wish.
JazzWax tracks: Do yourself a big favor. Download Marian McPartland and Her Hickory House Trio on 52d Street at iTunes for $11.99. Don't even think twice about it. These 17 tracks were recorded live in 1953 and feature Marian, drummer Joe Morello and bassists (on different dates) Bill Crow and Bob Carter. They are among the most precious piano recordings of the period. Dig the grace, impeccable timing and delight in the melody. Listen carefully where Marian's lines take her on well-known standards. It's a shame all of Marian's early trio dates aren't available in one remastered set.
Marian's first recordings in London with Vic Lewis in 1946 are on Vic Lewis: The Golden Years. Her tracks with Lewis are I've Found a New Baby, The World Is Waiting for the Sunshine, Sweet Lorraine, Rose Room, Blues and I Got Rhythm. You can down load the tracks here.
One of my favorite albums of Marian's with Jimmy McPartland is Thanks for Dropping By (1960). Originally known as Jimmy and Marian McPartland Play TV Themes (Design), the album features Jimmy McPartland (cornet), Urbie Green (trombone), Dick Cary (alto horn), Andy Fitzgerald (clarinet), Marian McPartland (piano), Ben Tucker (bass) and Mousie Alexander (drums). It's available on CD here.
JazzWax clip: Here's a taste of Marian at the Hickory House in 1954 with Bill Crow and Joe Morello...