Jazz Pianist Sticking to Standards. Marian McPartland is exploring frontiers of improvisation, while giving audiences the numbers they want to hear. MUSIC: INTERVIEW

WHEN critic Leonard Feather wrote of jazz pianist Marian McPartland in the early 1950s, ``She has three strikes against her: she's English; she's white; and she's a woman,'' he was only kidding. Really. ``He never meant it seriously,'' says the elegant but down-to-earth McPartland, speaking with a British accent in an interview. ``But I took it seriously.'' And, she adds, laughing, ``I'm still in the minority group, and it just keeps getting worse: You're English; you're white; you're a woman; you're middle-aged. You know, it's one thing after another. It never stops!''

But McPartland hasn't stopped either - since her arrival here from England, she has become one of the top pianists in jazz.

Her long career has included playing in clubs, recording, composing, teaching, and writing about jazz. And her radio program, ``Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz,'' currently in its 10th season, is National Public Radio's longest-running music series.

On each ``Piano Jazz'' show, McPartland features a guest - another jazz pianist. And for an hour the two play solos and duets, and talk about music. Obviously, the long-running program has put her in touch with many other pianists, from avant-gardist Cecil Taylor to traditionalist Dick Hyman to modernist Makoto Ozone. Always progressive and open-minded, McPartland has naturally been influenced by what she's heard on the shows.

``A lot of times I have to pull in my horns and be very careful. But with some players, you can just stretch out - it feels so good just to free myself of everything.''

By ``everything,'' McPartland is referring to chord structure, and the strict rules that usually (contrary to popular notion) dominate jazz playing.

``I'm getting a lot freer than I used to be,'' she said. ``It's sort of fun to take chances.''

BUT even though McPartland writes her own tunes and likes to play free jazz, she usually sticks to the standards - the songs she thinks her audience will like.

``It probably goes back to when I started playing in vaudeville in England,'' she explains. ``If that wasn't training to play for the audience, nothing was. Everything was done for the audience: the choice of tunes, the way you'd sell them, ... the way you had to bow, and everything you did was show biz.''

At that time she was studying classical music at London's Guildhall School of Music, but listening to and imitating jazz pianist Art Tatum on the side.

``I had a boyfriend who knew a lot of tunes,'' she says. ``We would sit down at the piano and play tunes for each other like `You're Blas'e' and `Deep in a Dream.' My parents thought it was all right for me to be around him because they'd just hear us playing the piano all the time!''

EVENTUALLY she joined the USO, where she met and married cornetist Jimmy McPartland. Although divorced, they're still great friends, and Marian credits Jimmy with helping her get her career started in the US.

``I think I've been very lucky, actually, to have somebody like Jimmy always be on my side, always pave the way. He knew everybody, and I started to meet people. I was like a kid in a candy store, going into clubs to see Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines and Duke Ellington.''

Because of Jimmy, Marian McPartland feels she avoided a lot of the problems that other women jazz players seem to run into, working in a male-dominated field.

Yet, she says, ``in a way I feel sorry for not having done the kind of things that Barbara Carroll did - be with groups, be with bands as a sideperson.''

When she first came to the US, she recalls, ``I guess I didn't realize it was so unusual, so special, to be a woman jazz player and then to hear guys saying, `Oh, you sound just like a man,' or `You're very good for a girl,' or, `Next to Erroll Garner, you're my favorite,' and stuff like that.''

MARIAN McPARTLAND has lived with jazz and watched it develop over several decades, and she believes that the jazz of the '80s isn't what it used to be - ``a great form of creative, indigenous American music.''

``It no longer means that,'' she continues. ``Now jazz can be Kenny G. or Spyro Gyra, or it could be George Winston. People are being miseducated as to what it is. But no matter what they call it, it's still out there if you want to find it.

``I keep coming up with this little picture in the back of my mind as a child, going on nature walks: You go into the woods, and you discover some beautiful little shrub or leaf or blossom that's hidden from the outside world.

``I know that sounds terribly mawkish, but jazz is sort of like that - not out there for everybody to see. There's a lot of stuff out there to get your attention, and you might never find it. You might never explore enough or be curious enough or interested enough.''

Even though she knows the life of a jazz musician is a tough one that doesn't get any easier with time, Marian McPartland wouldn't trade it for another.

``Music is a great life,'' she says. ``You can't expect everything to be a ball. Even if you had a million dollars ..., when you think of some guy like Donald Trump - I mean, he's probably great at his business. But he couldn't play a chorus of the blues to save his soul.''

She lets loose a gale of laughter.

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