Marian McPartland, jazz legend, dies

Marian McPartland was a famous jazz pianist and hosted the NPR show 'Piano Jazz.' She was 95.

Seth Wenig/AP
Marian McPartland was a legendary jazz pianist.

Marian McPartland, a renowned jazz pianist and host of the National Public Radio show "Piano Jazz," has died, NPR said Wednesday. She was 95.

McPartland died Tuesday night at her Port Washington home on Long Island, said Anna Christopher Bross, an NPR spokeswoman.

Over a career that spanned more than six decades, McPartland became a fixture in the jazz world as a talented musician and well-loved radio personality.

In an interview with The Associated Press in 2007, the 89-year-old said she saw no reason to retire.

"Retire? Why retire? I've got a job, I'm making money, and I like what I do. Why retire?" she asked. "I think I'll jump out of a cake, or something."

Born Margaret Marian Turner in England, she began playing classical piano at the age of 3. At 17, she was accepted to the prestigious Guildhall School of Music. She left in her third year to play piano with a touring vaudeville act – to the chagrin of her parents, who she said were "horrified," and a professor who called popular music "rubbish."

During World War II, while playing for Allied troops with the USO and its British equivalent, she met her husband, Chicago cornetist Jimmy McPartland. He died in 1991.

The couple came to live in New York in 1953, and McPartland landed a gig in a trio at the Hickory House, a bustling jazz hub on 52nd Street where she played intermittently for 10 years, brushing elbows with such greats as Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman.

McPartland recorded more than 50 albums for the Concord Jazz label and played in venues across the country. She later founded her own label, Halcyon Records, and her compositions were recorded by the likes of Tony Bennett and Peggy Lee, according to NPR.

She also turned her keen ears toward her contemporaries, writing articles and essays that immortalized the people and places of the jazz world in the 1950s and '60s.

In one essay, included in McPartland's collected works, "You've Come a Long Way, Baby" (1975), she wrote about her experiences as a woman trying to break into the jazz scene in the '50s, striving to be taken seriously by male musicians unaccustomed to playing with women.

In 1978, McPartland brought her talent for composition and status as a jazz insider to radio, and began hosting the Peabody Award-winning "Piano Jazz."

On the air, she and her guests sat at separate pianos, reminiscing, ad-libbing, and playing duets and solos. She hosted hundreds of jazz professionals, including Ray Brown, Susannah McCorkle and Eddie Palmieri.

"Marian was of course the brilliant artist and beloved icon of public radio," said Shari Hutchinson, executive producer of "Piano Jazz."

"I was able to work closely with one of the strongest, most successful, vital, creative women of her time, someone who overcame every obstacle and who pushed through every glass ceiling. I am deeply saddened at her passing, and at the same time profoundly joyful she let me into her life," Hutchinson said.

Charming, energetic, and always ready for a musical adventure, McPartland was well-suited to the role of live radio host. She told the AP in a 2000 interview that she wasn't thrown off when a guest changed keys in the middle of a show.

"I'm not afraid, for the most part, of anything," she said. "Somebody said, 'You're like someone who rides a bucking bronco. You'll ride anything that comes along.'"

In 2007, she performed in South Carolina the premiere of her own symphonic work, "A Portrait of Rachel Carson," inspired by the author's 1962 environmental book "Silent Spring."

McPartland continued to tour and perform into her 80s, retaining "her fetching and feathery sense of swing, sage economy and deep appreciation for essential melodic purity," according to a Daily Variety review of a Lincoln Center performance in January 2001.

"McPartland sure knows how to illuminate a line with lean poetic phrasing," reviewer Robert L. Daniels wrote. "There is wisdom in her fingers."

NPR Music and South Carolina ETV Radio, which produces "Piano Jazz," were paying tribute to McPartland on air and online Wednesday, the station said.

"Every week for 34 years, Marian seduced her guests and her audience with her tremendous wit, compassion and musicianship," said Anya Grundmann, executive producer and editorial director of NPR Music.

In 2007, the Kennedy Center named McPartland a Living Jazz Legend. Among her many recognitions, she was named an NEA Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2000.

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