The filmmaker James Coleman — better known in these parts simply as Huey — has always had fondness and admiration for older artists. Throughout his career, he’s told stories about dancers, musicians and artists who have either recently died or are facing the final stage of their lives.
In summer 2006, he found himself listening to the syndicated radio show “Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz,” as had been his custom for the previous decade or so. As he tuned in week after week that summer, it dawned on him that McPartland would be a worthy subject for one of his film projects.
He appreciated the cadence of her voice, her engaging English accent and her easy rapport with her guests. She made him laugh, and he liked her work on the piano.
“Elder artists appeal to me because you can look back at their work, and there’s a certain wisdom of their age,” he said. “I thought she was approachable, and I was right.”
He arranged to meet McPartland at her home in Port Washington, N.Y., just outside the city. A month later, he began working on a film about the jazz musician and radio host, who was 88 at the time. The result, “In Good Time: The Piano Jazz of Marian McPartland,” is making the rounds and winning praise in jazz and film circles.
Huey, who lives in Portland, will screen the film at 7 p.m. Thursday in Hannaford Hall at the Abromson Community Center at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.
It may not be his most ambitious film project to date. That distinction likely rests with his epic movie from a few years back, “Wilderness and Spirit, a Mountain Called Katahdin.”
But this new one makes him feel especially proud. “Any artist, you think the latest thing is the best thing you’ve done,” he says. “But I felt really in control during the editing process.”
He spent four years filming and five years working on the movie, and traveled near and far to secure interviews. Among those he interviewed and who appear in the film are musicians Elvis Costello and Diana Krall, who happen to be married and are big fans and friends of McPartland.
Huey incorporated old photographs and films into the documentary to complement new footage that he shot. He interviewed McPartland repeatedly, and filmed her performing live and taping “Piano Jazz” a half-dozen times or more.
Combined, the tapestry of images and words help shape the life of a jazz legend.
McPartland, who is now 93 and still performing, is a member of the National Radio Hall of Fame. Last year, she received the Order of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth II. She has been honored as a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master and a Living Jazz Legend.
She’s hosted her radio show since 1978. It can be heard at 8 p.m. Fridays on MPBN.
For the movie, Huey included recording sessions with pianist Julian Waterfall Pollack, guitarist Bill Frisell and ragtime musician Dick Hyman. Viewers also see McPartland at the Kennedy Center with Billy Taylor and at the White House as a guest of President Clinton.
“In Good Time” won second place this summer in the Audience Favorite category of the Maine International Film Festival, where it premiered. Because of McPartland’s international stature, the film will receive screenings across the country, and Huey is working with public radio and TV stations to air it as part of their fundraising campaigns. He plans to enter the movie in festivals nationwide.
While most of his previous movies have established Huey as a Maine filmmaker, this one might deliver him a national audience, said Lea Girardin, director of the Maine Film Commission. “I think this is going to elevate his stature,” she said. “He is certainly a well-known filmmaker in Maine, and this gives him a chance to reach a wider audience.”
In her advancing age, McPartland has eased her performance schedule. Huey saw her in New York a few weeks back. She had the energy to perform a few songs, and her spirit was strong.
“She’s slowing down, and it’s hard for her to walk,” he said. “Her fingers are tiring, but she’s still got it. She still has her wit. If we could all age the way she has, we’d all be blessed and happy.”
“In Good Time” is winning praise among jazz buffs because it calls attention to McPartland, who is revered in some jazz circles.
Jon Weber, a pianist and frequent guest host of “Piano Jazz,” said the movie appealed to him because it accurately portrayed McPartland as a band leader, composer, musician and radio host. She has an engaging personality and sharp wit, and that comes across in the 85-minute movie, he said.
“Marian makes jazz likeable, and perhaps some folks discovered that they were jazz fans when they started tuning in to ‘Piano Jazz’ every week,” Weber said in an email. “She makes a very complex art form feel un-threatening, and lots of listeners who are curious about jazz can glimpse into its mystique and beauty through a warm, accessible and know-ledgeable host.”
Donna Gourdal, the granddaughter of McPartland’s late husband, Jimmy, loved the movie for its intimate view of McPartland’s life and world. “It’s not a clinical documentary. It seems almost like a home movie,” she wrote from France.
Gourdal said McPartland feels good about the movie, too. Huey screened it for her a while ago, and she was happy with the result.
She was a reluctant subject at first, Gourdal said. McPartland didn’t think anyone would be interested enough to sit through a documentary about her life and career. But she liked the final cut, and was relieved with its sympathetic portrayal.
“She feels it is honest and, yes, she feels it captures her spirit . . . It gives a glimpse of her great sense of humor and it also shows her as a composer; that is something she would really like people to pick up on.”
Chris Oberholtzer, who teaches jazz at USM, said part of McPartland’s legacy lies in her ability to introduce people to jazz. Several of his students will perform in advance of the screening on Thursday.
“Her show has been on the air since I have been paying attention to jazz. She’s been on the air since 1978, and I graduated high school in ’79. It’s been a mainstay for me,” he said.
“Many of my jazz majors and other students, they all know who she is. In a good way, that was a very pleasant surprise to me. They are up on current artists, but not all traditional classical artists do they know about until they study them in one class or another. But her name is very well known.”
Huey feels blessed to have had the opportunity to make this movie. McPartland is a special person who has touched the lives of many people with her music and her ambassadorship in the world of jazz, he said.
“She has been an inspiration to a lot people, and she is still performing and living this incredible life,” he said. “This is a woman who has dedicated her life to what she has always wanted to do. It’s everybody’s dream.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: