If you’ve seen the film A Great Day in Harlem, you may have noticed that of the 57 jazz legends who showed up to be photographed by Art Kane standing on the stoop of a Harlem brownstone at 17 East 126th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues on an August morning in 1958, only three of them were women and only one of the three was white.
The three women were the great Kansas City pianist, Mary Lou Williams, known as “the lady who swings the band” when she performed with the Andy Kirk orchestra; vocalist Maxine Sullivan, famous for swinging Loch Lomond; and Marian McPartland, originally from Berkshire, England, who has spent the last 64 years playing jazz piano and educating people all over the world about this quintessentially black American music.
Besides being the only white woman in the photo, and the only player not born in the USA, McPartland is one of only six survivors from that photo shoot, along with Sonny Rollins, Johnny Griffin, Hank Jones, Horace Silver and Benny Golson. Golson’s presence, in what may be the most famous jazz photo of all time, led to his small but pivotal role in Steven Spielberg’s film, The Terminal.
McPartland’s film career has been more limited than that, but her radio career has been astounding. Her weekly one hour public radio show, Piano Jazz, is the longest-running cultural program on NPR. Her first show aired in 1978 and over the years she has interviewed, featured and dueted with the likes of Lionel Hampton, Mary Lou Williams, Dorothy Donegan (a great jazz pianist otherwise given short shrift by jazz critics), Jay McShann and Johnny Guarnieri.
Many of these shows are available on CD and they retain their musical and historical interest after repeated listening because, for once, the interviewer knows the true value of the music and musicians she is interviewing. She also knows what to ask them to play to showcase their lives and talents. When she joins her guests at the piano, the duets are spontaneous examples of the kind of telepathic communication plus virtuosity that only occurs at the highest level of jazz performance.
I first heard McPartland at the Charcoal House in my hometown of Toledo, Ohio around 1965. She and her husband, cornetist Jimmy McPartland, an original member of Chicago’s Austin High School Gang, were playing the local restaurant. She was the pianist in Jimmy’s Dixieland band and when the band took a breather she continued to perform solo. Only it was not Dixieland, but bebop piano that she played between the band’s sets. Jimmy and Marian had met during WWII through the USO and, although her style was still evolving, they found a way to perform together without any of the rancor that was usually associated with Dixieland/bop confrontations.
Her style has continued to evolve, but she still plays with the same crystalline clarity, spinning out flowing, articulate right hand melodic lines while backing them with inventive left hand harmonies and rhythmic accents. She has obviously learned from bebop pianists, but she also has a profound knowledge and understanding of the entire jazz keyboard tradition. That quality that makes her radio show so fascinating is rooted in her own curiosity and desire to learn about all the ways jazz can be played and swung on a keyboard. It is that combination of eagerness to learn, technical mastery, a brilliant mind still able to be amazed at what takes place during the jazz creative process and a soul overflowing with song that makes Marian McPartland one of the great living giants of jazz.
Marian McPartland appears Thursday through Sunday at Yoshi’s, with shows at 8 and 10 p.m., except on Sundays when they are at 7 and 9 p.m. 510 Embarcadero West, Oakland. 238-9200. www.yoshis.com.