Pianist Marian McPartland never assumed a hipster or cool mystique like many of her male jazz peers. Throughout her 70-year career, there was no brooding, no puzzling behavior, and no legendary binges or tantrums. Just a good-girl smile as wide as Piccadilly Circus and knowing eyes that bore a steely determination to stand out with graceful technique and an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz. Like Billy Taylor, Marian is both a brilliantly talented pianist and an open, friendly person, something of a misnomer in jazz. [Photo of Marian McPartland in 1959 by Al Fenn for Life]
Marian knows more songs than most jazz musicians. She also knows more jazz musicians than most jazz musicians. So in 1979, she leveraged her congeniality and curiosity to start Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz. For the past 30 years, the show Marian has hosted has become a cultural icon and a rite of passage for jazz musicians. Rather than treat the show as a self-promoting marketing opportunity or hammy radio version of The Tonight Show, Marian invented a humble journalistic format that was part salon and saloon. And like any good journalist hunting for the truth, Marian continues to get her guests to open up about sensitive topics and give up a few keyboard tricks.
In Part 2 of my interview with Marian, the pianist-educator and radio host talks about discovering bebop, her divorce from Jimmy McPartland, the Piano Jazz guest that sent her to the ladies room for an aspirin, Bill Evans' drug use, and the contest she yearns to have with pianist Dick Hyman:
JazzWax: Where did you learn to play bebop?
Marian McPartland: In Chicago. One night in the late 1940s I went to hear Jackie and Roy with Charlie Ventura after Jimmy and I worked the Brass Rail. To hear Jackie [Cain] and Roy [Kral], and Charlie, was something. Roy played wonderful bebop piano. His playing was different, from a harmonic perspective. The feel and attitude of bebop in the early days was about exciting chords and voicings. As time has passed, bebop has become something else. Jazz just keeps changing. When I heard Roy with Jackie, I was swept away, so I gave bebop a try. It seemed to come to me naturally. Luckily I knew I could fall back on Dixieland and traditional jazz—Jimmy [McPartland]’s form of music—if I had to or needed other types of gigs. [Photo of Jackie Cain and Charlie Ventura in 1948, courtesy of Jeff Austin]
JW: What did Jimmy McPartland think of you playing bebop?
MM: Jimmy was very tolerant of it. He always said to me, “I love the way you play but I can’t change my way of playing. It will always be the same.” When we put together a band, I played his way. When I went out with my own trio, I played bebop.
JW: In 1952, you began playing as the house pianist at the Hickory House on 52nd Street.
MM: It was so very exciting. In between sets we would run across to hear whoever was playing at Birdland—Duke, Bud Powell, Billy Taylor. No matter who was there, I would head off to go hear them.
JW: Did hearing those types of pianists ever discourage you?
MM: Hearing others never discouraged me. I felt I was part of the scene. I was in it for good. But it took determination to play music that people identified with men. Yet I always seemed to do well.
JW: Did you meet Duke Ellington?
MM: I became friendly with Duke at the Hickory House. He spent a lot of time there. His press agent was also the Hickory House’s press agent, so Duke often had his dinners there. The only comment Duke ever made about my playing he said in the nicest possible way, “Oh, you play so many notes” [laughs]. Eventually it dawned on me that maybe I was playing too many notes [laughs].
JW: What was Ellington like?
MM: Duke was such a charmer. He would never criticize me. In fact, he was a great friend. Every time I would go to see him at Birdland, he would announce me and ask me to play with the band. [Photo of Duke Ellington in 1957 by Thomas Macavoy for Life]
JW: Did you?
MM: Yes. I knew all of the band’s repertoire. But Duke would usually pick a blues for me and the band to play, and I would play the tune. And I loved doing it.
JW: Did the band love you playing with them?
MM: [Laughs] I don’t know. There wasn’t much they could do about it. I always found people to be very friendly to me. I don’t think I had any enemies. Being at the Hickory House for so many years [until 1962] probably had something to do with it. Even when we’d go out on the road, we’d come back there. Everyone dropped in.
JW: Which musician was most helpful to you?
MM: Jimmy [McPartland]. But nobody had to be that helpful. I was doing all right without any help.
JW: Did you know George Shearing?
MM: Yes, I played with George. I liked him a lot. In fact, later on we played two pianos when I had my radio show, which I still have.
JW: Did Charlie Parker hear you play?
MM: He never came to hear me, as far as I know. I went to hear him, but by then he was getting to be in bad shape. I remember going to see him at a club, and it was very dark and gloomy and there weren't many people there. He was already in trouble. I think it wasn't long after that he died, although I did listen to him on records a lot. A fantastic player.
JW: As a woman, did you ever feel like an outsider knocking on the clubhouse door trying to get in?
MM: No. I never ever felt that way. Jimmy was always there and wanted me to have my own trio. He was never envious. He was an amazing guy. He was always proud of me even when there was no reason to be. He was so good to me.
JW: Yet you two divorced in 1970.
MM: I think the divorce was more painful for him than me. I was the one who wanted it. God knows why. When we got the divorce, we became very friendly. Jimmy said, “It seems we had to get a divorce to learn to treat each other nicely.” Even though we were divorced, we still worked together. He never found anyone else to marry. Maybe if he did I might have jumped in because I was jealous. We remarried, of course, just before his death in 1991. [Photo of Jimmy and Marian McPartland at Charlie's Tavern, courtesy of Bill Crow]
JW: On your NPR show Piano Jazz, which pianist surprised you the most?
MM: I can't say. We've had so many surprises.
JW: But if you think back, is there anyone you thought about one way and afterward thought completely differently about him or her?
MM: Probably Denny Zeitlin [pictured]. He’s a psychiatrist, too, you know. I knew he was a fabulous player. But when he came to do the show the first time, he was more fabulous than I could possibly have imagined. I didn't know how I was going to deal with him. I had to go off to the ladies room and take an aspirin. I didn't think I was going to be able to keep up with him, but I did. It turned out to be a very good show.
JW: One of your best-known radio conversations was with Bill Evans in November 1978.
MM: I loved doing it. One of my favorite interviews. We were good friends.
JW: Were you worried that his solemn style would clash with your more playful feel?
MM: No concerns at all. I knew how he played, and I know how I play. I knew I could keep up with him, and I did. He liked it a lot. I did feel bad that he was on drugs that day we did the show. I never would have known he was on drugs. He seemed so normal. It's hard to believe that he had gone out and scored somewhere before the show. It just broke my heart that he had to go and die [in 1980].
JW: You got him to talk about Blue in Green and to admit that the song was written by him, not Miles Davis, who had long taken credit for it.
MM: I guess Miles figured he'd take it for himself.
JW: Did you ever play a Bill Evans piano transcription?
MM: [Laughs] No. I never could play them. Or Art Tatum transcriptions. I couldn't play a note.
JW: Come on.
MM: No, seriously. I was a terrible reader. I didn't even try playing a Bill Evans transcription. I was just content to listen to him. I probably have copied him over the years. Not intentionally, but I know I have taken a lot of his ideas and harmonies unconsciously. It was enough that we had him on the show.
JW: Did you ever try to get Miles on the show?
MM: Everyone on the show kept saying, “You can’t have Miles on. He swears too much.” I said, "That’s no problem. We’ll beep out the cursing." While we were arguing back and forth about having him on, Miles died. It was so silly about him swearing too much. We could have covered that easily.
JW: You're rumored to know more songs than any other jazz pianist.
MM: Oh, I don't know. Maybe Dick Hyman [pictured] may know more. I want to have a competition with him. I don't know how we'd settle that, but one day we have to do it [laughs]. Maybe people would keep asking for tunes, and the minute someone comes up with one he or I don't know, the other one would win [laughs].
JW: I was re-listening to your Hickory House recordings earlier. They are so full of enthusiasm, optimism and mischief.
MM: That's true [pause]. I'll go along with that [pause]. Absolutely. That just about describes me very well.
JazzWax tracks: Marian McPartland's most recent release is Twilight World, which features a splendid mix of originals, standards and obscure gems. The title track, for example, is an exquisite composition by Marian. Her steady take on Alfie also is beautiful. And her lyrical Afternoon in Paris is a stylistic return to her Hickory House days. You can hear Bill Evans' influence on Blue in Green. The album is available as a download at iTunes and Amazon. Or on CD here.
Many of Marian's Piano Jazz interviews/duets are available as downloads and on CD. My favorite remains her conversation with Bill Evans. There's a quiet tension there as well as many creative revelations. Other great Piano Jazz summits feature Dizzy Gillespie (allowing you to hear the trumpeter's famous approach to piano voicings), Henry Mancini (whose touch is unrivaled), and Lionel Hampton (whose sparkling personality and legendary approach to the piano and vibes was a perfect fit for Marian).
JazzWax tip: For more information about Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz on NPR, upcoming shows and podcasts, go here.
JazzWax tracks: Here's Part 1 of Marian's rewarding Bill Evans interview on Piano Jazz from 1978. What a shame they didn't spend the entire afternoon together. And dig Evans' distinct New Jersey accent emerge as he relaxes...