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.


Marian McPartland, Pastimes


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”.


Marian McPartland, Pastimes

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.”

It was evident that Marian had a natural talent for improvisation and composition after she won the school’s Wainwright Memorial Scholarship for Composition, the Worshipful Company of Musicians Composition Scholarship, and the Chairman’s School Composition Prize in 1936 and 1937. 

Marian McPartland

Whenever I learn about such talented musicians, artists, writers, etc., I wonder how much time they spent perfecting their craft. My boss tells her art and piano students, it takes 10,000 hours to perfect a craft (quoting from Malcolm Gladwell‘s book “Outliers“). That seems like a lifetime! But it’s true; it takes complete devotion and hours to master a skill. When looking back to her teenage years, Marian stated she “had no teenage life at all, devoting every spare moment to practicing Hanon exercises and classical pieces, and competing for scholarships.” 

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.


Marian McPartland, Pastimes


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.”

Though this was an emotional time for Marian, little did she know that she would meet her future husband while in Belgium on October 14th, 1944. She met Jimmy McPartland, a Chicago cornetist at a jam session. They married on February 3rd, 1945, in Aachen, Germany, and played at their own military base wedding. Marian now had both American and British citizenship. She began her first real training in jazz with her husband. Jimmy and Marian did their first recording together on January 6th, 1946 in London before leaving for the US. They arrived in New York City on April 23, 1946, and Marian would never reside outside of the U.S. again.
Jimmy and Marian

Jimmy and Marian

Marian and Jimmy


With the encouragement from Jimmy, Marian started her own trio and began playing with the talented Roy EldridgeColeman 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


Marian McPartland, Pastimes


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!

Marian McPartland, Pastimes

“A Great Day in Harlem”

Throughout the 1960s, Marian focused on jazz education, as she was not in high demand as a performer during this time. This may be because she wasn’t interested in avant-garde jazz back then. After conducting a workshop at a high school in Rochester, NY, Marian realized the importance of jazz education with kids being enthralled with the new rock and roll genre sweeping the nation. Who could blame them?! She would later be recognized for her work in jazz education when she received the Jazz Educator of the Year award. She would continue to teach and judge jazz festivals for the remainder of her career.

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 McPartland, Pastimes

Marian interviewing Ramsey Lewis on Piano Jazz in 2009

Marian McPartland, Pastimes

Pianist, Oscar Peterson, and Marian on Piano Jazz

By 1977, McPartland had become an advocate for women in jazz, headlining the first Women’s Jazz Festival in Kansas City, March 17–19, 1978. 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. McPartland rarely used women in her combos, but she helped many young women find their feet in the jazz business such as Mary Fettig (the first woman in the Stan Kenton band) and Susannah McCorkle

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.

Music History 101 reviews selected musicians from periods of history that continue to influence today’s culture and taste. If you enjoyed this story, please feel free to share on your favorite social media. Simply click the FB, Twitter or Pinterest link buttons along the side. Comments appreciated! If there is a musician of merit you would like us to feature, please comment below. Thank you for your support! 

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