As a guitar player and lover of rock and roll, I am clueless when it comes to the great jazz and classical pianists. Thankfully, my boss Linda Wehrli, is an extremely talented, knowledgable, and highly trained classical pianist and piano teacher for over 25 years. She is always informing her students and me of the great pianists of our time as well as throughout history. She recently mentioned famous jazz pianist and radio personality, Marian McPartland. I was intrigued to learn about this musician, especially after I discovered she had her own National Public Radio show called Piano Jazz from 1978 – 2011. I’m pleased to share with you what I found.
First, the basics. Marian McPartland (Margeret Marian Turner) was born on March 20th, 1918 in Slough, England. At the ripe age of 3, she began playing the piano. She studied at several private schools growing up. It was at the Stratford House for Girls where Marian met Doris Mackie, a teacher who became a life-long friend and great influence on Marian.
Mackie encouraged Marian to study classical music at Guildhall School of Music in London. It was in 1935 when Marian auditioned for the school. Since she was not great at sight-reading but had perfect pitch, she stated, “I was shaking in my boots. They’ll never take me. I’m not good enough.” Looks like we all have doubts, even talents like Marian! Regardless of her fears, she was accepted into the school based on her “rampant enthusiasm, God-given faculty, and a dangerous surplus of imagination”.
It was there that Marian studied to become a classical concert pianist. She was taught by Orlando Morgan, who also taught the classical British protegee Myra Hess. In addition, Fred Astaire and Noel Coward also studied with Orlando. Clearly Marian was in the right hands! Speaking of hands, she practiced 8 hours a day with hers. Studying from the Hanon method book on a Challen upright, Marian was already playing Chopin, Debussy, Beethoven, and Bach!
Although she struggled with sight-reading (the ability to read music from the page), her perfect pitch enabled her to learn music by ear. Marian recalled, “There was no heat in the room where the piano was. I sat there with my coat on. It was always a great, painstaking thing for me to read music. I never was able to rattle something off. I learned everything very, very slowly at that time.”
While studying classical music at Guildhall, Marian developed a love for American jazz and jazz musicians such as Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson, and Mary Lou Williams. In 1938, Marian shocked her family by seeking out lessons from Billy Mayerl at his School of Modern Syncopation. He convinced her to audition for his piano quartet, The Claviers. When she was accepted and offered to travel with the quartet, Marian was exhilarated. She desperately wanted to draw outside the lines of classical music. “It’s a stupid choice,” her father stated, “racketing around the country with a lot of show people.” Despite her family’s opposition, Marian decided this was what she wanted. That decision changed her life.
The Claviers performed on BBC’s first prime-time comedy/variety show called the Band Wagon and recorded at the famous Abbey Road Studios! (I can only imagine how amazing that must have felt.) After the tour was over in 1928, Marian returned to London to play several shows around town. The more I learn about this musician, the more I am in awe of her bravery. Not only did she take a risk by leaving one of the top classical music schools to pursue her dreams, but she also volunteered for the Entertainment National Service Association and the United Service Organization (USO) during WW II.
Marian reflected on how odd it felt during this time. Although she and the entertainers were having a good time, she couldn’t help but feel guilty “when people were getting killed every 5 minutes. You knew that behind the hedge something or someone was dead there. It was really tragic, but somehow I didn’t feel it as much then as I did afterward.”
With the encouragement from Jimmy, Marian started her own trio and began playing with the talented Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, and Terry Gibbs. Despite negativity from the notorious Leonard Feather, stating that she will never make it because she is “English, white, and a woman”, Marian persevered. She signed her first record deal without her husband with Savoy Records in 1951. Talk about another achievement – one of Marian’s idols, Duke Ellington, would show up to her gigs at the Hickory House. He once told her that she played too many notes, a remark she would never forget! The success of Marian’s trio would lead her to the signing of five records for Capitol Records.
During this time, Marian would write testimonials for jazz journals such as Downbeat. It’s not surprising, given her strong-willed and independent personality, that she also wrote about the issue of being a woman in jazz. For that time period, I can imagine it must have been difficult to speak your mind, let alone write about it. But because Marian had established herself in the jazz world, her writings and opinions had a profound effect. She questioned, “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?”
In 1958, Marian was selected to participate in a group photo of 57 notable jazz musicians. The photo was taken in front of a brownstone in Harlem in NYC by Art Kane, a freelance photographer working for Esquire magazine. Titled, “A Great Day in Harlem”, the photo became a well-known image of New York’s jazz musicians of the time. Very cool!
In May 1966 Marian began hosting a weekly radio show called “A Delicate Balance”. The interviews and connections during this show would soon lead to her famous Piano Jazz show on NPR. Piano Jazz was the longest-running cultural program on NPR, as well as one of the longest-running jazz programs ever produced on public radio. The theme, Kaleidoscope, was even her own composition. So cool! The program featured Marian on the keyboard with guest performers, usually pianists, but also singers, guitarists, other musicians, and even the author Studs Terkel. Piano Jazz did very well, receiving the Peabody Award for excellence in broadcasting in 1984 and won both the Gabriel Award and the NY Gold Medal Awards in 1986. (My boss used to listen to the program when she first started teaching. It kept her company while driving to students’ homes from Granada Hills to Mandeville Canyon. She ended up buying CDs of several of Marian’s radio shows which she continues to share with her piano students, to this day.)
Marian’s success did not go unnoticed. She was awarded a Grammy in 2004 and a Trustees’ Lifetime Achievement Award, for her work as an educator, writer, and host of Piano Jazz. Suffice it to say, Marian left a legacy in the jazz music world, living to the ripe age of 95!
We hope you enjoyed this mini music history lesson and will continue to learn more about Marian McPartland.
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