Remembering Marian McPartland

Aug 22, 2013

Marian McPartland became a legend throughout her 40 years in jazz.
Credit RJ Capak / SCETV (via NPR)

Jazz legend and public radio host Marian McPartland died of natural causes Tuesday night at the age of 95.

NPR’s longest-running jazz program, Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz, ran for 34 years. She interviewed practically every major jazz musician of the post-WWII era.

Listen to a special tribute to Marian McPartland, Friday at 8 PM on the NPR and Classical Music service.

  An award-winning pianist and composer, McPartland taught herself Chopin waltzes on the piano by ear when she was only three years old. She received classical training, then joined a four-piano vaudeville act which traveled throughout Europe entertaining troops during World War II.

Through those performances, Marian met American cornetist Jimmy McPartland. They married, went back to America and ultimately made their way to New York. That’s where her talent as a jazz musician blossomed, and brought her the opportunities that led her to radio.

McPartland (left) and jazz pianist/composer Dave Brubeck (right) recording a live taping of Piano Jazz.
Credit RJ Capak / SCETV (via NPR)

McPartland’s positive attitude allowed her to quickly connect with fellow jazz musicians, such as Mary Lou Williams. And even with the odds of being a British, female musician in the American jazz world, she proved her authenticity and began playing her own set at The Hickory House in 1952. What was originally supposed to be a two week gig turned into eight years of performing and recording. It became a gathering place for jazz colleagues such as Oscar Peterson, Benny Goodman, and Duke Ellington.

McPartland continued to record and perform throughout the 1950s and into the '60s, but as rock 'n' roll took over, she began to lecture on college campuses. In the late '60s, she started spinning jazz records on a New York radio station where other pianists would drop by the studio unannounced, just to chat. These casual encounters morphed into Piano Jazz.

Her compositions  entered the jazz repertoire and some of her songs—with lyrics by such stars as Johnny Mercer, Sammy Cahn, and Peggy Lee— are considered part of the Great American Songbook.

McPartland’s many honors include the National Music Council’s American Eagle Award, and the Grammy Trustees Award for lifetime achievement [acceptance video]. McPartland was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2007.