The Art of Less-is-More: Marian McPartland

Photo by Lochaven. Marian McPartland at Lake Buena Vista, FL. Jly, 1978. Flickr.

A number of posts ago, my friend Joan Graul wrote and asked why I didn’t write about Marian McPartland. She sent me links to the NPR celebration of thirty years of Piano Jazz, Marian’s radio celebration of jazz music and jazz musicians. It seems McPartland had stayed at her home in northern Vermont more than two decades ago (before I got there), when the North Country Concert Association invited her to perform at the Haskell Opera House, a lovely old theater that straddles the border with Canada. She was, Joan said, “a delightful house guest.  She made herself right at home and made us feel as if we’d always known her. What a wonderful experience to know such a fine artist and to be in the moment with incredible brilliance and humanity.”

Like a lot of people, I’ve listened to Piano Jazz over the years. It’s always felt good, with an intimate conversation with one jazz great or another, a few tunes played by whoever it is, and duets with Marian. All of it deeply involving because it’s not often that you get to hear creative people talk about the day-to-day doing of their art.

There is no doubt that Marian McPartland is amazing. At almost 92 (March 20), she’s still doing Piano Jazz, making new friends in the jazz world, composing and playing. She’s been awarded honorary doctorates, and, say critics, her last CD (Twilight World) is more eclectic than ever, reaching from Irving Berlin and Alec Wilder to Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman, as well as three of her own compositions.

It’s hard to imagine quite how it could have begun. She grew up middle class in middle class English towns. Her family was minimally musical, but she was something of a prodigy and started fooling around with the piano at the age of three. Not surprisingly, they never quite got who she was. Her mother decided her hands were made for the violin and made her take violin lessons instead of piano. She was sent to a school for music in her teens. She was introduced to jazz in the most casual way by her sister’s boyfriend who owned recordings they’d play together on a wind-up victrola. She was immediately caught up in the music. She shocked her family by leaving the classical study of piano and joining a four-piano vaudeville act entertaining allied troupes Europe. In Belgium, she met and married a cornet player, Jimmy McPartland, and from then on her life was taken up almost entirely by playing with jazz musicians and learning from them. Surely, jazz critic Leonard Feather, writing in Down Beat magazine, wasn’t the only person to comment that McPartland had “three strikes against her – being English, white and a woman.”

Marian McPartland became a jazz great by living the music and absorbing the rhythms and harmonies of nearly every musician she met. I haven’t found any succinct descriptions of how her playing developed and changed, but it’s clear she started out, insecure but with a love of the music that over-rode everything, and gradually grew into a confident and utterly poised performer. I did find one quotation that gives us insight:

I’ve got arthritis in my knees and hands. I can’t play all these uptempo runs like I used to, but I think I play better. Duke was the one who really laid it on me. “Oooh, Marian, you play so many notes.” He said it very charmingly, always his way. But I still thought, “Hmmm, that’s as far as he’d go as criticism.” It took me a while, but I eventually mellowed out, learned the art of less-is-more.

Photo by Tom Marcello. Marian McPartland at Rochester, NY, 1975. Flickr.

Today, she is known as a harmonically, rhythmically complex and inventive improviser, a lover of good melodies and the creator of wonderful harmonies. She’s produced albums by the score, run her own music label, Halcyon, and written some wonderful tunes. She began interviewing other musicians and educating people about jazz when, in the sixties, she was playing for some high school students who, given the opportunity to make a request, hollered out: “You Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog.” Rock had overwhelmed the music world and jazz was in danger of disappearing. Reading interviews with her can be exhausting: she’s known and played with hundreds if not thousands of musicians. She remembers every one of them and how they play, and has been a friend to most of them.

What can her life tell us about art and artists? That they are indeed, obsessed. In the case of McPartland, joyously. That there may not be notable changes in style or substance when they are old, but there can be a more profound ease, a straight-forward, simpler approach to everything that matters and, in Marian McPartland’s case, the guts at age ninety to compose and perform a major work for improvised piano and symphony orchestra, A Portrait of Rachel Carson. You can find its debut online at NPR’s website, along with dozens of articles and interviews at other sites. Or enjoy an afternoon on You Tube.

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