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'Shall We Play That One Together?': The life of piano jazz legend Marian McPartland
Marian McPartland sunbathing on the roof of her Manhattan apartment, circa the 1960s.
by Gene Seymour (The Seattle Times)
'Shall We Play That One Together? The Life and Art of Jazz Piano Legend Marian McPartland' by Paul de Barros, St. Martin's Press, 496 pp., $35. In bookstores Oct. 16.
Paradise may be a great place to live in, but its implicit lack of conflict makes it a lousy home for a dramatist. In similar fashion, it's difficult, or at least challenging, for any biographer to take on the life of an exemplary human being and fashion a compelling story out of it.
Consider the case of Marian McPartland, pianist, composer and longtime host of NPR's peerless "Piano Jazz" series. For those who know McPartland only through her recorded, live and broadcast appearances and those who have had the pleasure of her company, the encomium bestowed by composer Alec Wilder in a letter she saved for years pretty much nails her down:
"You are very talented, you are witty, warm, good, ethical, tender, tolerant, angry, responsible, elegant, stylish, strong, steadfast, womanly, understanding, romantic, demanding, and sensitive, civilized, a trustworthy, generous, indeed a sensible example of the potential splendor of human kind at its best."
So we're done here, right? Not, apparently, by a longshot, thanks to Paul de Barros' engrossing and illuminating biography of McPartland, "Shall We Play That One Together?," its title a direct reference to the query she invariably asked each week of Hank Jones, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, Ray Charles, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Regina Carter, Rosemary Clooney, Elvis Costello, Geri Allen, Tony Bennett, Norah Jones, Ahmad Jamal, Steely Dan (!), Clint Eastwood (!!) and the many other members of an eclectic guest list assembled over more than 30 years. (McPartland, now 94, retired as host last year, though she remains the show's artistic director.)
De Barros, jazz critic for The Seattle Times, approaches McPartland's long, rich life as both a knowledgeable fan of her musical achievements and an evenhanded observer of her personal highs and lows, from Slough, England, where she was born in 1918 "with perfect pitch, the ability to pick out any note she heard and play it, the way other people might identify a color or shape." This gift served her devotedly through her classical music education at London's Guildhall School of Music (where she veered on her own from the influences of Bach and Beethoven to those of Duke Ellington and Teddy Wilson) to her dropping out from school to tour with a vaudeville act that would eventually entertain troops in World War II Europe — and, thus, bring her in touch with the man she would marry.
De Barros' book recognizes that Jimmy McPartland's story is almost as central to its narrative as Marian's own. The Chicago-born cornetist, heavily influenced by Bix Beiderbecke, was an infantryman stationed in Belgium when he met Marian during her USO tour in 1944. They married in Germany and, upon returning to the United States, he became her guide into the still-burgeoning jazz scene, first in Chicago and then in New York.
Theirs was, putting it mildly, a rocky relationship. He drank too much. She tried to make him stop. Such tensions were not at all helped as her reputation gradually matched and soon exceeded his at nightclubs throughout Manhattan; her most significant gig being her 12-year residency at the now-long-defunct Hickory House on fabled 52nd Street where her drummer — and, for a long while, her lover — was the witty, rhythmically resourceful Joe Morello.
Typifying de Barros' delicacy throughout in dealing with McPartland's personal life is the poise with which he recounts the particulars of McPartland's affair with Morello and, for that matter, the marriage to McPartland, which officially ended in a 1970 divorce. Their relationship, however, endured as they lived together in Long Island and remarried shortly before Jimmy's death from lung cancer in 1991. Their original divorce, as Marian often quipped, "was a failure."
Such is an example of Marian McPartland's shrewd, self-deprecating wit, examples of which are on display throughout "Shall We Play That One Together?" as are her flashes of pique and bruised vanity toward sundry producers, club owners and even other musicians. (Those regular listeners of "Piano Jazz" might be surprised to find that the indefatigably gracious host "could and often did swear like a sailor.")
The overall portrait De Barros presents is that of an open-minded, openhearted artist who struggled over seemingly insurmountable circumstances, not the least being gender prejudice, to continue evolving, growing, giving back as much inspiration as she reaped. It is a story of jazz in the midst of its first — and one hopes, not its last — century.