MELVILLE, N.Y. — Marian McPartland, the trailblazing jazz pianist who for 33 years hosted the NPR program “Piano Jazz” and posed the musical question “Shall we play that one together?” to legendary guests from Eubie Blake to Boz Scaggs, died at her Long Island home Tuesday night. She was 95.
“She was not only a brilliant artist and beloved icon of public radio. She also brought education of jazz to schools, and her program, ‘Piano Jazz,’ really made jazz more accessible to a lot of people,” says Shari Hutchinson, the show’s producer and general manager of South Carolina’s ETV radio.
“Piano Jazz,” which McPartland hosted from 1978 to 2011, featured the jazz legend doing what she loved most — chatting and performing duets with fellow musicians. The show continues in rebroadcast on NPR and featured reminiscences from McPartland over the past two years.
McPartland, whose given name was Margaret Marian Turner, was born in Slough in Buckinghamshire, England, on March 20, 1918. She showed an interest in music as early as 3 years old, when she began playing melodies on the family piano. At 17 she entered the Guildhall School of Music in London. In 1938, she left school to tour with a four-piano vaudeville act, a decision that did not please her mother who predicted “you’ll marry a musician and live in an attic,’” McPartland recalled in 1998.
That musician was cornetist Jimmy McPartland, whom she met while touring with a USO show in France during World War II. They married in 1946 and moved to the United States, where they performed together. Paul de Barros’ 2011 biography “Shall We Play That One Together?” detailed the turbulent marriage, which was plagued by Jimmy’s alcoholism and Marian’s affair with drummer Joe Morello. They divorced in 1974 and remarried shortly before Jimmy’s death in 1991.
By the early 1950s, she embarked on a solo career, virtually unheard of at a time when the only other prominent female jazz pianist in the industry was Mary Lou Williams. McPartland formed her own modern jazz trio, which had a residency at the Hickory House, a popular Manhattan jazz spot on West 52nd Street, from 1952 to 1960.
“She led her own trio which women just didn’t do and she was a champion of other women in jazz, especially women composers. She made it a point to play their music,” says Hutchinson.
Though she worked mostly at New York City clubs, McPartland fell in love with Long Island while visiting friends who lived there. She and Jimmy settled in Merrick and later Port Washington “knowing we had to move somewhere more prestigious,” McPartland told Newsday in May.
Her last public appearance was in June for a screening of the 2011 documentary “In Good Time: The Piano Jazz of Marian McPartland” at the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, Long Island.
McPartland is survived by her granddaughter, Donna Gourdol, who lives in France, her grandson, Douglas Kassel of San Francisco, and two nephews and a niece living in England.
Distributed by MCT Information Services