Another Great Briton

After the great successes of 2012, you may be looking for further achievements by British people. I have one that may surprise you.

Marian McPartland
Marian McPartland
Marian Turner was born in 1918. This year she will be 95. A talented pianist, she studied at London’s Guildhall School of Music. A career as a classical musician seemed inevitable, but she had other ideas. Fascinated by the popular music and jazz of the 1930s, she began to appear in theatres and music halls. Sometimes she appeared in a three or four piano act with Billy Mayerl, one of the great popular pianists of the day. She adopted the stage name “Marion Page”.

During World War Two she was very busy and worked for ENSA, one of the organisations which provided entertainment for our troops. In 1944, while in Belgium, she met and began to perform with a famous jazz cornet player from Chicago called Jimmy McPartland. Soon they were married.

As a GI bride, Marian moved to the United States with Jimmy. In Chicago, among his family and friends, they began to play in bands together. Then, in 1949, they settled in Manhattan. Marian was fascinated by the changes which were taking place in jazz and by the new styles of piano playing. Able to learn from some of the great pianists at first hand, soon she developed into a major jazz player. Encouraged by Jimmy, she formed her own piano trio. From 1952 to 1960 she had a long residency at a New York jazz club, the Hickory House. This established her as one of the leading jazz pianists in the city and she began to record. For a time, the drummer in her trio was the great Joe Morello, who went on to play in Dave Brubeck’s greatest quartet.

During the 1960s Marian became more involved in teaching, passing on her jazz skills to pupils of all ages. She once said that this was her attempt to stem the tide of Rock and Roll. In 1964, Marian began to present a weekly radio programme in New York on which she played jazz records and interviewed leading musicians. This was taken up by other radio stations in the US. In 1978 it became a series of broadcasts on National Public Radio called “Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz”. It became one of the longest-running cultural programs on NPR and one of the longest running jazz broadcasts anywhere. Marian’s formula was to play piano with her guests – duetting where appropriate – and involving them in very sophisticated musical discussion.

Marian finally retired in 2010. Many of her programmes have been issued on CDs.The programme was a great achievement, but its reputation should not be allowed to diminish the status of Marian, the jazz pianist. The GI bride followed all the major developments in jazz after WW2. She embraced them in her own piano style and became one of the most advanced and sophisticated pianists playing jazz in the United States, the home of jazz. Her great talent was appreciated by critics and audiences world-wide. She continued to play into her 90s. In the New Year Honours List for 2010, Great Britain gave her an OBE, citing her contribution to jazz and jazz education in the United States.
Peter Batten

Anyone interested in finding out how great a jazz pianist Marian became should obtain a copy of Concord CD CCD 4460 ‘Marian McPartland live at Maybeck Recital Hall’.

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