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Marian McPartland & The Golden Age of Jazz
by Paul de Barros (Downbeat)
Pianist Marian McPartland, 94, has become an icon not only because of her career as a musician, but also her pioneering work as the longtime host of the National Public Radio show “Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz.”
We’re proud to present an edited excerpt from DownBeat contributor Paul de Barros’ new book, Shall We Play That One Together?: The Life And Art Of Jazz Piano Legend Marian McPartland (St. Martin’s Press). In chapter five, “Windy City Apprentice (1946–’50),” we glimpse Marian and her new husband, cornetist Jimmy McPartland, as they set out to make a life together in his hometown of Chicago, where she soaks up the city’s new sounds. Marian, who grew up in England, had met and married Jimmy during World War II, when they played in a USO band in Belgium.
* * *
Marian and Jimmy lived in Chicago more than four years. It was a critical growth period—a musical apprenticeship for Marian and an emotional one for her and Jimmy as a couple. Through wit, keen observation and sheer force of will, Marian emerged from Chicago a modern jazz player. She also began to get a glimmer of recognition beyond the shadow of her famous husband. Her marriage, already fragile because of Jimmy’s alcoholism, survived its roughest period, including one dismal juncture when she gave up on it altogether. Years later she would complain that she and Jimmy should have stayed in New York in 1946 when Eddie Condon had offered Jimmy a job there, but in many ways, Chicago had been a bet- ter choice. The Chicago scene flowered in the late ’40s, giving her an opportunity to grow at her own pace—in the limelight, but not directly under the glare of the Big Apple’s unforgiving spotlight. Chicago was good for Jimmy, too. It was home, for starters, and showing off his new bride to family and friends was just the right medicine after the war.
In June 1946, Marian made what was probably her Chicago debut on a concert billed as “Swing vs. Jazz,” spon- sored by the newly formed Hot Club of Chicago. Staged at the Moose Lodge on North State Street, the show pitted a trad band featuring Jimmy and Marian against the renowned swing band of Charlie Barnet. People packed the place and welcomed Jimmy home from the war.
Their first regular gig was decidedly low profile—in a South Side bar attached to a bowling alley called the Rose Bowl, near 119th Street on Michigan Avenue.
“Jimmy would very proudly introduce me for my number, which might be ‘Claire de Lune,’” said Marian. “There weren’t that many people in the bar, but I would be playing, and somebody in the bowling alley would get a strike, and everybody would roarrrr.”
Dick Wang, a high school trumpet player at the time (and later a distinguished jazz professor), recalled seeing Marian and Jimmy there while Dick was playing a gig nearby, with pianist Audrey Morris.
"I was just knocked out," said Wang. "First of all, Marian had really good piano chops. ... She played the stride-style left hand. ... She had lis- tened to Jess Stacy and to Teddy Wilson. She was throwing in these har- monies, and this was what fascinated Audrey. It was always explorative, the chord voicings especially.”
“People started to notice me because I was with Jimmy,” Marian said modestly. “He was very proud of me—he did show me off ... and in his better moments introduce me in such a way as to make me sound like the greatest thing since the wheel.”
But Jimmy’s drinking was becoming more and more of a problem, despite Marian’s continual protests and his empty promises to quit. In August, Marian’s sister Joyce, concerned about the letters she had been receiving from Marian, came to Chicago from England to offer moral support. Or so Marian thought, until she saw Joyce at the station. Joyce was five months pregnant. Two weeks before she arrived, she had married her boyfriend, Tony Armitage, the father of her child-to-be, with whom she had been living at the family home in Eastbourne. To conceal her advanced pregnancy from her father (she suspected her mother already knew), Joyce had decided to visit Marian in America. So there they were, two proper, upper-middle- class girls from Bromley, Kent, descendants of three generations of choir boys, whose parents had sent them off to the Stratford House for Girls to be groomed for nice husbands. One was pregnant out of wedlock; the other nearly penniless, married to an alcoholic jazz musician.
“My mother’s dire prediction,” wrote Marian in an autobiographical essay, “that I would marry a musician and live in an attic [well, not quite an attic, but the Dearborn St. apartment was close] had come true.”
When Jimmy’s band moved to the Brass Rail, in the Loop neighborhood, DownBeat ran a feature noting that Marian “displayed unusual ver- satility” and published a sample of her chord voicings. In her comments for the DownBeat piece, Marian made it clear she now preferred modern sounds to traditional jazz. Her playing was undoubtedly a work in progress, as she leapfrogged from Jimmy’s four-on-the-floor trad to the more abstract and complex style of bop, effectively skipping the swing era altogether. The result in the long run would be an eclectic, personal style described perceptively by one musician who hung around the Brass Rail in those days, accordion player Charlie Rex, as "homemade."
Jimmy and Marian worked at the Brass Rail till the end of 1947. By this time, the Chicago jazz scene had exploded. Clubs sprouted up everywhere, in the Loop and on the north and south sides of the city. Every brand of jazz was played: Dixieland, big-band swing, piano trios and— of particular interest to Marian—the new bebop she had first heard in Paris.
"Randolph Street was just like 52nd Street in New York,” recalled Joe Segal, longtime owner of Chicago’s venerable club the Jazz Showcase. “The first time I came here, I was stationed in the Army down in Champaign. I’d get the weekend off and grab the IC [Illinois Central Railroad] right up to Randolph Street. Joe Sherman’s Down Beat Room, which was in the Oriental Theater, had Henry ‘Red’ Allen and J. C. Higginbotham. I was in hog heaven. And then Red Saunders was there, who was at the Club DeLisa a long time. Across the street was the Brass Rail. And the Band Box, that was the one that was underneath.”
For Marian, Chicago was like an open university. She went out to hear everyone, setting her sights on learning how to play modern. And Chicago was going modern fast, the seeds having been sown by local boys such as pianist Lennie Tristano and bandleaders Bill Russo and Jay Burkhardt. The singer in Burkhardt’s band was a straw-voiced lass from Milwaukee named Jackie Cain who, after she hooked up with vocalist/pianist Roy Kral, went to work with the Charlie Ventura Octet. Jackie and Roy forged a personal style of bop singing that incorporated scat, witty lyrics, agile melodies and a light, airy sound. Their slinky, exotic “East Of Suez” with Ventura knocked everybody out. Jimmy’s bass player, Ben Carlton, hipped the McPartlands to Jackie and Roy. They all jumped into drummer Chick Evans’ car and raced down to the Bee Hive, on the South Side, to hear the new duo. Jackie and Roy returned the favor, dropping in on Marian and Jimmy at the Brass Rail. They all became fast friends. Kral’s advanced but accessible approach to bop, which honored the song while venturing into new harmonic territory, was right up Marian’s alley. She literally hovered over his shoulder, studying the way he comped, learning to add ninths and altered intervals to her chords. As Marian pointed out later, this was the way jazz was “taught” in those days.
Radio played a big role in Marian’s Chicago apprenticeship, too. She became an avid fan of Dave Garroway’s WMAQ show “The Eleven Sixty Club,” which championed Dizzy Gillespie’s “Groovin’ High,” Nellie Lutcher’s “Fine Brown Frame,” George Shearing’s “September In The Rain” and Lennie Tristano’s famous free-improvised version of “I Can’t Get Started.” What she didn’t hear on the radio, Marian heard on a porta- ble record player carried everywhere by Ben Carlton, who turned her on to Woody Herman’s bebop band and bassist Chubby Jackson’s septet with Dave Tough. Marian learned from these recordings what she could not get from Jimmy: bop harmonies that included dissonant upper extensions of the chords (altered ninths, 11ths, 13ths); the new, laconic style of “comping” pioneered by Bud Powell; the light, even-handed touch of Lester Young’s disciples; and how to think about forging a middle ground between the transgressions of bop and a commercial sound. Over the years, all of this information would, in one form or another, come out in her own playing.
New York's Golde Age of Jazz (1953-'58)
When Marian McPartland played at the Hickory House in New York, jazz was enjoying a golden age. Between 1953 and 1966, artists such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck, Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman, among others, produced some of the best work in the history of the music—nearly all of it in one city, New York, in one loosely configured community. Clubs proliferated. In Midtown, there were the Royal Roost, Birdland, Basin Street, Jimmy Ryan’s, the Embers, the Hickory House, the Composer, Child’s Paramount and the Metropole. In Greenwich Village, you had Condon’s, Café Bohemia, Café Society, the Five Spot and the Central Plaza. Beyond New York, the music rumbled into living rooms on TV soundtracks—notably for “Peter Gunn,” the 1957 detective show with Henry Mancini’s wailing saxophone theme—and in mainstream motion pictures a few years later with Quincy Jones’ soundtrack to The Pawnbroker. Resident jazz bands played on late- night talk shows—indeed, “Tonight Show” host Steve Allen was himself a jazz pianist—and jazz musicians, including Monk, Dizzy Gillespie and Marian herself—were regular guests. Louis Armstrong appeared on the Ed Sullivan show and was interviewed by Edward R. Murrow on “Person To Person.” Monk, Brubeck and Duke Ellington appeared on the cover of Time magazine.
One of the highlights of the period for Marian was playing and record- ing with Joe Morello. The drummer brought a lift to her trio and jetted some much-needed air between the instruments. He treated the drums not as a mere rhythm machine—though he certainly swung—but as a delicate and intricate musical system. He was exact, but never clinical. Obsessed with technique, he worked at it constantly.
“I remember once I was driving to the Hickory House,” Marian said. “Suddenly, a cab went by at a furious rate. Joe was in it—practicing like mad on a practice pad in the cab. I broke up. It just looked so funny.”
Because of Morello, the Hickory House became a mecca for young drummers. Morello didn’t take well to hero worship. He got so tired of peo- ple comparing him to great drummers like Buddy Rich and Max Roach that he invented an imaginary drummer, Marvin Bonessa, who, he said with deadpan seriousness, was “better than all of them.” Like the legendary Texas pianist Peck Kelly, Morello said Bonessa rarely played out, so it was impossible to ever really hear him. Marian and Morello went along with the ruse, nodding solemnly whenever Bonessa’s name came up. Bassist Bill Crow claimed Bonessa eventually got a few votes in a DownBeat poll, so far did his reputation spread.
One regular visitor to the Hickory House was Duke Ellington’s right- hand man, Billy Strayhorn, who came into the club once or twice a week, always sitting in the same spot, the last stool on the right side of the bar. Whenever Marian played his brilliant ballad “Lush Life,” Strayhorn would turn to face her, raise his cocktail and his eyebrows high in a toast, and say, “Aaaah!” Marian, as always, was ahead of the curve in picking out endur- ing songs. Being in the theater district, the Hickory House often attracted Broadway types. One night, after Marian had played a set that included the ballad “Ill Wind,” a man walked up to her and slipped her a note. It said, “I’m Harold Arlen, and I love your playing.” Arlen, of course, had writ- ten the song, along with dozens of other evergreens, including “Over The Rainbow” and “Stormy Weather.” Marian never threw away Arlen’s note. Jimmy and Bud Freeman played the Randall’s Island Jazz Festival that summer and the lineup was breathtaking—from Count Basie and Lester Young to the Modern Jazz Quartet and Billie Holiday. But New Yorkers were probably blasé: This was simply what jazz was in 1958. And as with all periods of abundance, who ever thought it would go away? One enterprising magazine editor, Harold Hayes at Esquire, presciently saw that the jazz scene in New York had reached critical mass and ought to be docu- mented for posterity. Art Kane, art director for Seventeen magazine, was enlisted to take the photographs. Kane suggested they round up every jazz musician they could find in New York and take a class picture. The result was the historic photograph A Great Day in Harlem.
The call was for 10 a.m. on Aug. 12 (Gerry Mulligan later said he doubted anyone would come that early. Bud Freeman famously quipped in a documentary about the photo, “I didn’t know there were two 10 o’clocks in each day.”) At the appointed hour, musicians began to arrive and eventually a group of 57 congregated in front of a brownstone on the north side of 126th Street, in the block between Fifth and Madison. Among them were Count Basie, Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Oscar Pettiford, Bud Freeman, Johnny Griffin, Coleman Hawkins, Hank Jones, Maxine Sullivan, Jimmy Rushing, Chubby Jackson, Roy Eldridge, Art Blakey, Rex Stewart, Gerry Mulligan, Gene Krupa, Vic Dickenson, Red Allen, Mary Lou Williams ... and Marian McPartland. Wearing a fetching yellow sun dress and holding a briefcase-size handbag in her right hand, arm distended, her left hand stretched across her waist to her right forearm, Marian stood in the front row, next to Mary Lou, who was flanked on the other side by Monk. Along with Williams and Sullivan, she was one of only three women in the congregation.
When the shutter clicked, Marian and Mary Lou appeared to be having a conversation, Marian’s head cocked ever so slightly upward, listening. Gillespie, at the far right, one leg casually crossed over the other, stuck his tongue out at Roy Eldridge, who, standing in front of Diz, had just turned around to speak. The whole impression was one of a gathering of friends.
And so it was.
Conspicuously absent was Jimmy, who, when Marian had urged him to come that morning, had said, “That’s too fuckin’ early,” turned over, and gone back to sleep. A Great Day in Harlem was published in the January 1959 issue of Esquire. Few musicians even bothered to keep a copy. Later, they kicked themselves, for there would be precious few opportunities again to gather such a stellar assembly in New York. The Golden Era would soon be over.