Marian McPartland is known less for her playing than for hosting the weekly NPR program Piano Jazz for more than three decades
Author Name = Paul de Barros
Genre = Jazz
Title = Shall We Play That One Together? The Life and Art of Jazz Piano Legend Marian McPartland
Publisher = St. Martin’s Press (2012)
One of the most famous jazz musicians, Marian McPartland is known less for her playing than for hosting the weekly NPR program Piano Jazz for more than three decades, beginning in 1978. Initially, each program featured McPartland and another pianist: the two performed selections together, but also solo. In time, the concept expanded to include guests other than pianists. The program was successful for several reasons, including McPartland’s engaging personality, articulateness, and British accent; the host and guests’ intelligent discussions; the quality of the music; and the hour-long format, which permitted the participants time to talk and play without rushing. Some of the shows were released on CD, and the show continues being broadcast in re-runs. For the title of his biography of McPartland, Paul de Barros borrowed a question the pianist often asked on her program.
Yet McPartland was a substantial pianist. (Though she is living, I use the past tense because she no longer plays.) Classically trained, she became enamored of and proficient in jazz, ultimately comfortable performing in traditional, modern, and even free modes. To me, her most rewarding decade was the 1950s, when she led a group with bassist Bill Crow and drummer Joe Morello, had a multi-year engagement at the Hickory House in New York, and recorded three appealing albums for Capitol in successive years, the first in 1954: At the Hickory House, After Dark, and The Marian McPartland Trio. (I am unfamiliar with her fourth Capitol album, With You in Mind , which de Barros deems “bland” ). That decade, she matured as a musician by becoming harmonically sophisticated and apparently gaining confidence in her artistry, even though she occasionally struggled with tempo. In time, she became so sure of her abilities that she played comfortably with the likes of Cecil Taylor, perhaps the most assertive free improviser.
De Barros’s presentation of McPartland’s life and career is comprehensive, balanced, and well written. He details McPartland’s early years: from birth as Margaret Turner in England (1918), through her sometimes difficult family life, through lessons in classical music at the Guildhall School in London (1935-1938), through studying and then touring with Billy Mayerl (1938), through the most important event in her life, personally and professionally: marrying the American trumpeter Jimmy McPartland in 1946. The author credits him with introducing his wife to the American jazz scene, of which he was a part, and illustrates the opposite trajectories of the spouses’ careers: his waned as hers waxed. De Barros treats Jimmy especially deftly. When discussing the trumpeter’s alcoholism and its effect on the McPartlands’ marriage, he neither dwells on it nor passes judgment. A chronicler, he does not moralize, as may further be observed in his treatment of the spouses’ infidelities. During the marriage, Jimmy fathered a child with another woman; Marian had a long affair with Joe Morello. As neither McPartland was terribly upset about the other’s unfaithfulness, there is nothing salacious in the presentation of these adulteries. The couple divorced in 1967, but remarried in early 1991, fewer than three weeks before Jimmy’s death.
In a biography, the details of the subject’s life matter. Yet Marian McPartland’s life is significant not because of her upbringing and various relationships but because of her contributions to music. These include her piano playing, which was admired by such luminaries as Duke Ellington, who listened to her at the Hickory House, and the composer Alec Wilder. Largely because of Wilder and radio producer Dick Phipps, she was asked to host Piano Jazz, though this was not her first broadcasting effort: For two years in the 1960s she hosted A Delicate Balance, a weekly two-hour jazz show on WBAI in New York. She composed music (“Afterglow,” “Ambiance,” “Twilight World”). She and her husband established Unison Records in 1948; she started Halcyon Records forty years later. She wrote about music and jazz musicians in reviews and articles and, with difficulty, in the book All in Good Time (1987), which focuses on female musicians. She was an important jazz educator, conducting workshops for students from grade school through college. She occasionally discovered students who devoted their lives to music, such as bassist Jon Burr. She was adept at selecting sidemen for her trio, players who were not only good for her but who would have rewarding careers after leaving her; they include bassists Eddie Gomez and Steve Swallow and drummers Pete LaRoca and Joe Morello. She is a focal point in Art Kane’s famous 1958 photograph of fifty-seven jazz musicians known as A Great Day in Harlem. The author treats these aspects of McPartland’s career, and more.
De Barros’s book is thorough partly because the biographer had access to the pianist. He lived with her for months, talking with her about her life and career and researching in her extensive archive. Because of her involvement in the project, one might expect him to pull punches. He does not. Her concert performances of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, for example, generated occasionally savage reviews, from which de Barros quotes. When he thinks that criticism is warranted, he identifies flaws, though never maliciously. He terms her album Willow Creek and Other Ballads “tepid” (329). In the chapter titled “Loss,” he documents that, beginning in the late 1950s, her “life and career slowly and inexorably fell apart, until, by 1968, she hit bottom” (191). He acknowledges that she could be controlling and bullying, and cruel.
I find de Barros’s judgment generally sound, though I do not always agree with his assessments. For example, in 1995 Life magazine staged a recreation of the Great Day in Harlempicture by photographing ten of the eleven surviving musicians positioned precisely where they stood in 1958. (Sonny Rollins was on tour at the time.) To me, the later image, which shows how few of the musicians were living thirty-seven years after the original, is poignant; de Barros considers it “an unfortunate stunt” (375), without explaining why he responds to it as he does.
De Barros is, to the best of my knowledge, almost always accurate. Among the errors are these: Pierre Salinger was President Kennedy’s press secretary, not secretary of state (197); the minister to the New York jazz community was John Gensel, not Peter Gensel (347); the institution of higher learning in Athens, Ohio, is Ohio University, not the University of Ohio (352). If the book requires a second edition, these mistakes should be corrected.
I find irritating the absence of page numbers from periodicals cited in the notes at the rear of the book. Why not provide page numbers so anyone wishing to read more of what the sources relate can do so easily, without having to search through a newspaper or magazine for a specific article? Perhaps the author honored house style.
Though subsequent articles and books might expand on events in McPartland’s life that de Barros mentions or focus on aspects of the pianist’s art that do not much concern him, this biography is probably definitive.
Author = Benjamin Franklin V