Marian McPartland Swings Into Her 80′s With Style

Let’s face it, for the modern jazz fan under 50, the name Marian McPartland is not going to bring back memories of her swinging through the 50′s at the Hickory House, nor probably will it send one to the aisles of Tower looking for her latest release. For this person-for me, let’s say-Marian McPartland is that high, cracking voice on the NPR radio show Piano Jazz , for nearly 20 years appearing weekly with another pianist in tow in her patented two-piano format. She gushes over their work-”that was heaven,” she told Bill Evans after a ballad performance on one memorable 1978 show-and then cooks up her own synesthetic exercises, improvising the sound of the fog rolling in or a light summer sprinkle. In her slightly eccentric, ladylike enthusiasms, she comes across as jazz piano’s answer to Julia Child. Upon closer inspection, none of these impressions are wrong, exactly, just grossly inadequate.

On March 21, at 8 P.M., Ms. McPartland celebrates her 80th birthday with a Town Hall concert in the company of musical friends, old ones like piano peers Tommy Flanagan and Ray Bryant and young ones like pianists Jacky Terrason and Renee Rosnes. (WBGO, 88.3 FM, which runs Piano Jazz every Thursday evening, will broadcast the concert live.) And in June, Concord will release her 50th album, Just Friends , a CD extension of the Piano Jazz concept, including duets with six of the most distinguished pianists in jazz:

Dave Brubeck, George Shearing, Geri Allen, Gene Harris, Ms. Rosnes and

Mr. Flanagan.

Eighty-year-old musicians are rarely so keen to take on all comers. “Oh God, don’t mention it,” she said of the birthday during a phone interview. “It’s only a number.” When she’s not playing piano hostess, her voice drops some of the tea-party cheeriness and takes on a throatier and distinctly American informality. Which makes sense. Ms. McPartland is the product of a properly buttoned-down British family who junked her classical piano studies and joined the music hall stage. As World War II was ending, she met and quickly married the Dixieland cornetist Jimmy McPartland, a brawling, bigger-than-life character who introduced her to America and its loose, bibulous ways. Specifically, the crowd at guitarist Eddie Condon’s New York club.

“My God, what a hotbed of alcoholics,” she said. “Every one of them. I was always someone who was able to have drinks. You know, in England you were thought to be a weakling if you got drunk. You were supposed to be drinking and still be sensible, whereas over here, everyone wants to drink and fall down.”

Jimmy McPartland died in 1991, but more than a little of Jimmy’s saloon bonhomie rubbed off on Ms. McPartland-or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, mixed with a lively, headstrong nature. I mentioned her striking appearance in Art Kane’s famous 1958 photograph of jazz musicians that later inspired the documentary film A Great Day in Harlem . “I’ve had more compliments on that,” she said brightly. “That was just a sundress. I guess the way the dress was shaped, and I had on the right bra.” She giggled. “I’m glad.”

When I drop by the studio to watch a taping of Piano Jazz , the mood is a little more serious. Ms. McPartland looks, as they say, fabulous-tall and lanky as a cowgirl. She is, however, growing restive waiting for her guest (“Where are you, woman?” she muttered to the studio clock), who this week was the avant-gardist Marilyn Crispell. I’m amazed Ms. McPartland has even heard of Ms. Crispell, a spiky, percussive player of the Cecil Taylor school and virtually unknown outside the confines of the die-hard avant-garde. “Marilyn allowed as how she actually played a couple of melodies,” Ms. McPartland said knowingly. “I’m going to play a ‘free’ piece with her, needless to say.” As it turns out, Ms. McPartland knows everything about everyone in jazz. She monitors the radio and the jazz trades with an avidity far more typical of the devoted fan or journalist than a top player. “I have to see if there’s some genius I’ve missed,” she said.

Marilyn Crispell finally appeared (a confusion about the starting hour), and the taping was a success, without ever losing its tinge of Noel Coward. Ms. McPartland was at pains to compliment Ms. Crispell’s truly prodigious chops-”I’m thinking of assassinating you shortly afterwards”-without neglecting to suggest that her guest’s more atonal excursions are not exactly her thing. “It’s so interesting,” she told Ms. Crispell and her public radio listeners, “although I have to confess to not knowing exactly what you’re doing.” After a version of John Coltrane’s “Lazy Bird” that is more Crispell than Coltrane, Ms. McPartland pronounced: “Well, I guess

you’d call it ‘ Lazy Bird , ‘ I heard a little of

that. Well , I don’t know what to say.”

Pause. “Terrific!”

Curiously, words that would sound passive-aggressive (to say the least) coming from anyone else fall like benediction upon Ms. Crispell’s ears. Even to be mildly chafed by Ms. McPartland is to be recognized, to be chosen, and for a middle-aged modernist like Ms. Crispell, who still lacks a decent American fan base, that means a lot. To play, and play well, two on-the-spot improvisations with Ms. McPartland is grounds for exultation, for both women. “Whee! That felt nice,” Ms. McPartland exclaimed. “Interesting stuff.” Afterward, Ms. Crispell was transformed into a schoolgirl with a crush on a charismatic senior teacher. “I just adored her,” she said. “I wished we lived closer so I could see her more.”

Marilyn Crispell knows that Marian McPartland understands perhaps better than anyone what it’s like for a woman jazz player to aspire to be really good and to want recognition when she finally gets there. In All in Good Time , her book of jazz essays, Ms. McPartland writes that at first, “I didn’t really keep steady time or listen enough to the other players. I was so eager to prove myself that I just went banging in with lots of enthusiasm and not too much expertise.” In the 1950′s, she earned her spot in the history of New York jazz, leading a trio six nights a week at the Hickory House, one of the last bastions of 52nd Street swing. Duke Ellington, a regular patron, would flirt and try to feed her forkfuls of his steak when she dropped by the table. Years later, she returned the favor, sort of, “gingerly exposing a small section of the ducal rear end” when the master required his vitamin shot. The Hickory House days were nothing if not memorable, but on the recorded evidence ( Marian McPartland at the Hickory House on Jasmine) and despite her best efforts, she still wasn’t a great jazz player.

Then as now, Ms. McPartland is an

encyclopedia of tunes, and she’s got a

harmonic sixth sense whereby she can feel, smell and see pitches as readily as hear them. What she lacked as a younger player was the rhythmic confidence and drive-to use a brutally overused word, swing -and it only took one lifetime at the piano to get it. Her Concord work in the 90′s, albums like In My Life and Marian McPartland Plays the Music of Mary Lou Williams , is the music of arrival. Closing in on 80, she knows she’s twice the pianist she was at 40 and credits having a piano jazz show of her own as a key to her slow-motion success-the master class that never ends. “Just doing Piano Jazz forces me to listen to a lot of things, or to relisten to a lot of things,” she said. “It’s educational all around. I guess Piano Jazz has made me feel like I have a place in the world.”

And the show could clear a little room for Marilyn Crispell, who has a strong recent album to push- Nothing Ever Was, Anyway on ECM. “The show is on 250 stations,” Ms. McPartland noted. “She may get some gigs out of that.”

Now Hear This!

Bob Dorough : The surpassingly odd vocalist who recorded the classic anti-Christmas carol “Blue X-mas” with Miles Davis in the early 60′s is back with a newish album, Right on My Way Home (Blue Note) and a gig at Birdland on March 25-26.