Pioneer Profile | Marian McPartland

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British-born jazz pianist who emigrated to the US and won a huge following with her NPR show where she became known for bringing in underrepresented demographics to jazz clubs.

Born in Slough in 1918, Marian McPartland grew to be a revered radio personality in the US with her National Public Radio show, “Piano Jazz”. As an accomplished musician in her own right, Marian collaborated with creative giants, from her personal idol, Mary Lou Williams, to Dizzy Gillespie and Willie Nelson. Although her male contemporaries get significantly more attention, Marian McPartland was a jazz pioneer, rebelling against her conservative parents to become a professional musician in her 20s, and leading her own trio by the 1950s.

Marian McPartland is far from a conventional figure, and unconventional female jazz pioneers are often unfairly defined by their personal misfortunes, while respect for technical and creative skills is too often reserved for their male counterparts. So, for this month’s Pioneer Profile we want to tell you all about Marian and her brilliant career as a jazz pianist, composer, writer and radio host – the latter part being a part of her life or over over 30 years, making her one of the most prolific personalities in the mediums history in the process.

An avid learner, Marian’s musical journey started at age 3 when she first adventured on the piano, although her parents wouldn’t allow her to have formal lessons until she was 16. By that time, Marian had become well versed in learning songs by ear, which remained her favourite learning method throughout her life. She would go on to study classical music at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, becoming a professional performer in the 1930s.

Pioneer Profile | Marian McPartland
Marian McPartland with Joe Morello

After volunteering to play for allied troops during World War II, Marian met a Chicago cornetist named Jimmy McPartland at a jam session for the USO. Jimmy, a member of the army at the time, was solicited to put together a sextet to entertain the troops, and invited Marian to join him as their pianist. They soon fell for each other, and signed an official US Army marriage document on 14 December 1944.

Marian then moved to the United States as a newlywed – much to her family’s dismay – and it was here that she developed a love for American jazz and established a lifelong admiration for musicians such as Duke EllingtonFats WallerTeddy Wilson, and her favourite of all, Mary Lou Williams. First to Chicago, joining her husband’s Dixieland band and then moving to New York in 1949, where she started leading her own trio with whom she would embark on a decade strong residency at the Hickory House Jazz Club. This was the same year that McPartland began working as a writer for journals such as Down Beat, where she freely challenged the status quo and wrote about the issues faced by women in jazz.

“Can’t we women make our own contribution to jazz by playing like women, but still capturing the essential elements of jazz – good beat – good ideas – honesty and true feeling?”

Taken from an article written for Just Jazz Magazine in 1959

During her time at the Hickory House, Duke Ellington would often come in to listen. Ellington was influential on McPartland’s development as a pianist, and told her she “played too many notes”, a sentiment she would take to heart. The drummer Joe Morello joined the group in 1953 and was a member of the trio until he departed to join Dave Brubeck‘s Quartet in late 1956. The success of this trio would lead to the signing of McPartland to Capitol Records for five albums.

The Marian McPartland Trio live at the Hickory House, 1953.

As well as a performer, McPartland was a jazz promoter and a jazz educator, teaching in several American high schools and colleges. In the 1960s, she co-founded her own label, Halcyon Records, specifically to promote underrepresented and underrated jazz musicians.

Between 1966–69, she also found time to review 34 albums for Down Beat magazine. Her perspective was unique, because she approached the review from her background as a peer musician. 1966 was also a very meaningful year for Marian, as it was the year she began hosting a weekly radio show called “A Delicate Balance”. The interviews and connections she created on this very show would prove to be an important precursor to McPartland’s irreplaceable, Piano Jazz.

“Things Ain’t What They Used To Be” on BBC Jazz 625 (June, 1964)

Marian became aware of the need for jazz education when she was convinced to do a workshop at a high school in 1956. In 1964, she began teaching at jazz clinics organised by Clem DeRosa, one of her former drummers. She continued to work in jazz education throughout the following decade. McPartland would go on to be recognised for her work in jazz education, receiving the Jazz Educator of the Year award in 1986. She would continue to teach and judge jazz festivals for young people for the rest of her life.

By the 1970s, McPartland had become a vocal advocate for women in jazz, headlining the first Women’s Jazz Festival in Kansas City in 1978. Her collection of jazz profiles was compiled and published in 1987 in the book Marian McPartland’s Jazz World: All in Good Time. The late ’70s marked the beginning of a renaissance for live jazz that sent Marian across the globe, performing in Asia, Europe, South America, and across the United States.

Pioneer Profile | Marian McPartland
Marian McPartland performs during a workshop at the Hawthorne School in the District in 1973 (Joe Heiberger/The Washington Post)

It was her great sensitivity to talk about, explore, and elevate everything to do with Jazz that landed McPartland the opportunity to host her own NPR radio show, Piano Jazz in 1979, where McPartland and a guest would meet to chat and play duets. By the time Marian retired at 92, Piano Jazz had become one of the longest-running Jazz shows in radio history, celebrating over 30 years on air.

In 2010, the same year she retired from hosting her show, McPartland was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for her “services to jazz and to aspiring young musicians”. Adding to a long list of awards celebrating her career, which included a Grammy and a Lifetime Achievement Award by Down Beat. She was performing vivaciously into her late 80s and reportedly appeared to lose virtually none of the graceful precision, infectious bounce and eager improvising adventurousness she had shown in her youth.

Marian’s stubbornness was a defining theme of her life and career, from rebelling against her parents’ ideas of gender roles and where she should fit in, to refusing to conform to a specific genre, inviting numerous guests from all walks of life to collaborate. She has paved the way to following generations, offering a strong female role model to young musicians and challenging perceptions about gender and age.

If you’d like to find out more about the inspirational figure that is Mirian McPartland, NPR has a host of fantastic radio programmes to listen to, including Marian McPartland: A Centennial Celebration from 2018.

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