Born in a small town in Southeastern England in 1918, Marian McPartland started playing piano at the age of three. She was encouraged to learn the violin at the age of eight—perhaps because her parents weren’t thrilled about her love of Jazz and they hadn’t heard of jazz violinist Joe Venuti—but she continued to spend all of her free time at the keys. Marian studied classical music at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, but quit in 1938 to join a four piano vaudeville act run by Billy Mayerl.
The piano quartet was a hit and continued to perform over the course of the war, entertaining both British and American troops, courtesy of the USO. She met her husband, cornetist Jimmy McPartland, in a show in Belgium in 1944. They were soon wed, and moved to Jimmy’s native Chicago. Marion continued to play, and the couple’s move to New York City in 1949 would soon prove to be a good career choice. Jimmy encouraged Marian to form her own trio, which played at clubs like The Embers and Hickory House. A recording contract with Savoy Records came in 1951.
This extended play 45 shows Marian at a bit of a crossroads, at least in terms of personnel. “Moonlight In Vermont” features the rhythm section of Eddie Safranski (bass) and Don Lamond (drums).
Able accompaniment for a lovely, understated melody from McPartland. Four months later, she was back in the studio, but this time with Bob Carter on bass and Joe Morello on drums.
Granted, “There’ll Never Be Another You” is inherently more lively than “Moonlight In Vermont,” but the improvement is clear—the interplay between Carter and Morello is more fluid, more inventive. McPartland was especially taken with the playing of Morello, who had just moved to New York City a few months before. Her first impression: “He played with a loose, easy feeling interspersed with subtle flashes of humor reminiscent of the late Sid Catlett. Everyone knew that here was a discovery.”
Here’s another tasty McPartland/Morello collaboration, this time from her 1956 album After Dark, on Capitol Records—”I Could Write a Book.”
Marian was not afraid to try something new if she felt like it. 1963’s Bossa Nova and Soul saw her playing a Wurlitzer Electric Piano on a couple of numbers, including this take on “Love For Sale.”
The following year saw the debut of McPartland’s program on New York radio station WBAI, which gave her a forum for conversation and duets with other musicians. It would eventually become NPR’s Piano Jazz, which ran from 1978-2011. Here’s a 1984 recording with Dave Brubeck; presumably, Marian had forgiven Dave for luring Joe Morello away from her.
In 2005, she had Steely Dan on the show, and sat in for this soulful version of “Hesitation Blues.”
Just before turning 90, Marian had written and staged a production of her opera based on the life of environmentalist Rachel Carson. She was still going strong on the radio, too—many episodes were released as albums—and still recording her own music. Here’s the title track from her album “Twilight World.”
Marian MacPartland was known for her musical dexterity, taste, and ingenuity. She was also known for introducing listeners to a myriad of artists that they might not have otherwise heard, and for that, we owe her a great debt. She died last August, at the age of 95.