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The unique charms of Marian McPartland


By Mary Kunz Goldman

When someone lives to be 95, you can't complain. But it will be hard not to miss Marian McPartland.

She leaves such a legacy with her "Piano Jazz" show, which aired for years on WBFO-FM. It spotlighted almost any great jazz pianist you could think of. It was so sincere, and so personal. It was always funny to hear McPartland reminiscing about her husband, Jimmy McPartland. They got divorced but they stayed close friends. She would talk about George Shearing and the Hickory House where they all played. It was a British thing.

I will never forget the show where she had Joe Williams on and she could not stop giggling. She was like a schoolgirl, and Joe Williams knew it, you could just tell. When he went and did the risque "Who She Do," McPartland almost lost it and I did, too.

McPartland's playing was cool and bright and she had such an appreciation for the old standards. Once, a guest suggested a contemporary number. "Yes, we could play that," McPartland said. She paused. "But why play that when we could play ..." And she started in on "The Song Is You."

In 2002, McPartland came to Chautauqua along with a few other pianists including Ruth Laredo, the great classical virtuoso who died, tragically, rather young. I interviewed them and was surprised to find that Laredo was the cut-up, the broad, the one you could talk to. McPartland was more reserved.

Still, she was funny. "Oh, damn," she said once, in that British accent. "I have another call."

The reserve melted further when I happened to ask her about the dress she wore in the picture "A Great Day in Harlem," pictured up above. That is she in the dress in the front row standing, just right of center. She is speaking with Mary Lou Williams, to the right of her. Anyway, about that dress, I asked her what color it was.

She laughed and grew animated. "It was a nice, yellow cotton dress," she said. "Perfect for that weather." She remembered that legendary picture with such pride. After that we talked more easily.

Ruth Laredo, I remember, got a kick out of Marian. "She's so salty and funny," she said to me. "And she's very spontaneous. She doesn't plan what she's going to play. At all the concerts you'll see her in her dressing room, all dressed up. She'll write down what she's going to play on the back of an envelope. I've gone to see her at Birdland, she's got that little envelope."

McPartland never lost that envelope, or that quicksilver quality. In 2009 the young Buffalo pianist Christopher Ziemba appeared on "Piano Jazz." I asked Ziemba, then 22, what the experience was like.

"As soon as she sat down at the piano, it was as if a huge light bulb turned on," he said. "When she played, it wasn't as if she was 91 years old. There was a twinkle in her eyes. She was very astute."

That was Marian McPartland, in love with music until the end.

God love her.


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