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Pauline Lerner

Happy Birthday, Marian McPartland

March 31, 2006 at 5:26 AM

Whenever I go out of town to an area with good public radio stations, I listen to some great music that I can’t access at home, near the nation’s capital. One of my favorite shows is Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz ( Marian McPartland has a delightful personality and tremendous musical talent. She talks to her guest artists about the music they play, and often she plays with them and improvises. She comes across as completely genuine.

I was excited when I had an opportunity to hear her in concert last week. She sounds great on radio, but she is worlds better in person. From the instant her fingers hit the keys, I was galvanized. It was as if the music came from her fingers, through the piano, across the concert hall, and directly into my heart. I know that the piano and the concert hall acoustics were very good, but there was something more happening here. I sensed without seeing the other people in the audience that they were responding the same way I did. I don’t know enough about jazz to understand how she got the effects she did, and I didn’t know a lot of the songs she played, but I know that she affected me as few musicians have.

Marian McPartland is an interesting lady. When I first heard her on Piano Jazz, I figured that she must be African-American because she sounded so good. I was wrong. She is Caucasian and British by birth. She studied classical piano when she was very young, and, as she told us during the concert, her teacher was always criticizing her for not practicing scales. She loved vaudeville, and when she came of age she was invited to join a piano vaudeville team. Her teacher was strongly opposed to it, and so were her parents. Her mother begged her not to go away and become a starving artist in an attic. Her father offered her 1000 pounds, an extremely large sum of money at the time (just before World War II), if she would stay at home. She went anyway. She traveled around Europe with her piano vaudeville team, entertaining the Allied troops in World War II. While on tour, she met her future husband, Jimmy McPartland. After WWII, she moved to the U.S. and started playing with her own jazz trio. Besides performing, recording, and hosting her radio show, she has been very active in promoting jazz music in the public schools. The concert I heard was a very special one because it occurred in the same week as her 88th birthday. Some of the luminaries of National Public Radio and other jazz musicians spoke birthday greetings and praises to her live or on a recording. As part of the celebration, someone from NPR told us that many more hours of Piano Jazz have been digitally remastered so that people can listen for years to come. I almost raised my hand and asked where I could buy some of these recordings. (Of course, they’re available on In a recording, Wynton Marsalis, the great jazz trumpeter, told her that he had heard her play in New Orleans when he was a teenager and she inspired him to pursue a career in music. He said that he had intense love and respect for her. After listening to the praise, Marian McPartland went to the piano and improvised for quite a while on the theme of Happy Birthday to You, with a few bars of Saints slipped in seamlessly.

Happy birthday, Marian, from one of your many fans!

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