August 21, 2013

McPartland, jazz legend and radio host, dies at 95

The Washington Post

NEW YORK — After beginning her career in British music halls, Marian McPartland came to the United States and became a most unexpected jazz star. She forged a distinctive style on piano, made scores of albums and composed music that was recorded by superstars.

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In this March 2008 photo, Marian McPartland plays piano during a celebration of her 90th birthday in New York.


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In this Nov. 13, 2007, file photo, Marian McPartland talks with students at the University of South Carolina during a master class at the School of Music in Columbia, S.C. McPartland, 95, the legendary jazz pianist and host of the National Public Radio show "Piano Jazz," died of natural causes Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013 at her Port Washington home on Long Island, NY (AP Photo/Brett Flashnick, File)

NPR remembers Marian McPartland

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But her greatest contribution to jazz came later in life, through her illuminating interviews and impromptu performances with musicians on her long-running NPR program, "Piano Jazz."

She was 61 when the first "Piano Jazz" episode — with pianist Billy Taylor — aired in 1979. By the time she stepped away from the series in 2011, McPartland had won a Peabody Award for broadcasting and a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement. She also helped a generation learn about jazz through her searching interviews, conducted in her dulcet-toned, sometimes irreverent, British-accented voice.

"Marian McPartland has done more for jazz pianists than anyone in the entire world," jazz impresario George Wein said in 1991.

McPartland died Aug. 20 at her home in Port Washington, N.Y. She was 95.

Her death was announced by NPR. The cause was not disclosed.

Trained as a classical pianist at a conservatory in her native England, McPartland was drawn to the improvisational freedom of jazz, a world dominated by men and derived from African-American culture.

She succeeded in spite of "three hopeless strikes against her," as countryman critic Leonard Feather put it 1951: She was British, white and a woman.

Yet she managed to use her background as an outsider, "without American social, racial and class baggage," to her musical advantage, Paul de Barros wrote in his 2012 biography of McPartland, "Shall We Play That One Together?"

"It allowed her to perceive jazz from the start as a high art," he wrote.

During the 1950s, McPartland led a trio in New York nightclubs, most notably the Hickory House, and soon became one of the era's few women to become established as jazz instrumentalists.

She was one of only two women included in Art Kane's renowned group portrait of jazz musicians on a Harlem street in 1958. She stood in the front row, next to Mary Lou Williams, in the photograph of 57 musicians that became the inspiration for Jean Bach's Oscar-nominated 1994 documentary, "A Great Day in Harlem."

McPartland was a pioneering woman in jazz and often appeared at the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival at the Kennedy Center. A teenaged Diana Krall called her for career advice, and McPartland often gave air time on "Piano Jazz" to female performers, from Carmen McRae to Norah Jones.

Nonetheless, she was reluctant to identify herself as a feminist. Replying to a question from Ms. magazine co-founder Gloria Steinem at a college forum in 1974, McPartland shrugged off the idea that she had faced discrimination.

"It always seemed like an advantage to be a woman," she said.

Margaret Marian Turner was born March 20, 1918, in Slough, England, outside London. Her father was an engineer with the British arsenal, and her mother followed the strict class rules of the times.

She began playing piano by ear at age 3, mimicking Chopin compositions that her mother played, but she didn't take formal lessons until she was 16. After attending girls' schools, she went to the Guildhall School, a London conservatory, at 17.

When her teachers heard her playing jazz, they warned her away from such "rubbish." But after a couple of years, she left the conservatory to join a traveling piano-quartet act. Known as Margaret or Maggie to her family, she took the stage name of Marian Page.

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