Jazz pianist Marian McPartland as radio host: creative and humorous
New York — Jazz pianist Marian McPartland says of her role as host of ''Piano Jazz'' for National Public Radio, ''It's one of my favorite things to do - one of the high points in my career. To be able to talk and play with pianists like Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Barbara Carroll - it's wonderful!''
The series, produced by William Hay and Dick Phipps through the South Carolina Educational Radio Network, has entered its third season, with the extraordinarily articulate McPartland chatting, playing with, and listening to some of the finest jazz pianists around.
The atmosphere is informal, and McPartland manages to put every performer at ease, allowing spontaneous, creative, and often humorous musical moments to happen.
During taping sessions at the Baldwin Piano Studio here last fall, McPartland showed her uncanny versatility as she romped through sessions with the widely divergent styles of John Bunch, Randy Weston, Ray Bryant, and Stanley Cowell. What a pleasure to watch her jump from the easygoing swing and stride style of John Bunch to the avant-garde explorations of Stanley Cowell - and she seemed to enjoy every minute of it.
What is more remarkable is that, in most cases, she has never played with these musicians before. How does she explain her unusual musical flexibility?
''The way I acquired my repertoire was to learn music off the BBC,'' the British-born pianist said. ''I didn't know one style from the other - to me it was all just music.''
McPartland readily admits that she has no ''bag of my own,'' a brave remark in these times, when most musicians (and many critics) place so much importance on a unique sound.
''I don't have an identifiable style,'' she affirms. ''I've always wanted to go with what's happening. I get bored with playing the same way, and I don't want to get stale. If someone has an identifiable sound, and they come up with something new, people are disappointed. But people kind of expect me to do something different.
''Anyway, I think each person in the jazz world is different. They don't have to try to be, they just are. I especially enjoy musicians who are continually growing, who don't settle into a groove, like sitting on a bookshelf.''
Her response to the question ''Are you basically an eclectic musician?'' is: ''I've never figured out what eclectic means. Is it good?'' But she does have an easy way with words, although she denies that it came naturally.
''I used not to be articulate - it was a case of learn by doing. In 1950 I opened at the Embers opposite Eddie Heywood. I was a nervous wreck. I used to write down what to say, and my heart would be pounding as I read it. But I got better, because I had to do it.''
How does she approach her guests in the series?
''Musically I try to stay out of the way,'' McPartland said, ''and I want the guests to have fun and be as comfortable as possible.''
But to many an ear, she does much more than stay out of the way - she spurs the players on.
''If I were sitting in their spot, I'd want somebody to spur me on,'' she replies in her matter-of-fact way.
''The first year I did the series I was like a kid in a candy store.'' The illustrious guest list the first two years included Eubie Blake, Chick Corea, George Shearing, Mary Lou Williams, and Bill Evans. This year listeners will hear Cy Coleman, Alice Coltrane, Jaki Byard, Stanley Cowell, Johnny Guarnieri, Dick Wellstood, Ray Bryant, Norma Teagarden, Roger Kellaway, John Bunch, Randy Weston, Jess Stacy, and Jimmy Rowles.
''Sometimes I feel like a jazz groupie,'' McPartland commented. ''I'm such a fan of so many of the people with whom I've played.''
Meanwhile, she is touring around the United States, and will end up performing at the Hotel Carlyle here from June to the end of September, with bassist Steve LaSpina. In her spare time she works on a book on women in jazz. A longtime supporter and encourager of women jazz musicians, she noted, ''Years ago the biggest compliment was 'You play just like a man.' But then I started to worry about it. If I play like a man I must be loud, bombastic, and aggressive. I don't want to be all these things. You can still be forceful if you're a woman , you can still play with intelligence, and you can still be strong.
''As far as that's concerned, I know a lot of guys with a delicate touch - but I don't think any of them would dig it if I said, 'Gee, you sound just like a woman.' ''
''Piano Jazz'' will run on NPR through the end of June - consult local listings for exact date and time.