Marian McPartland, the genteel Englishwoman who became a fixture of the American jazz scene as a pianist and, later in life, hosted the internationally syndicated and immensely popular public radio show “Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz,” died on Tuesday at her home in Port Washington, N.Y. She was 95.
Her death was announced by NPR.
Ms. McPartland was a gifted musician but an unlikely candidate for jazz stardom. She recalled in a 1998 interview for National Public Radiothat shortly after she arrived in the United States in 1946, the influential jazz critic Leonard Feather, who himself was born in England and who began his career as a pianist, said, “Oh, she’ll never make it: she’s English, white and a woman.”
Mr. Feather, she added, “always used to tell me it was a joke, but I don’t think he meant it as a joke
The odds against any woman finding success as a jazz musician in the late 1940s and early ’50s were formidable, but Ms. McPartland overcame them with grace. Listeners were charmed by her Old World stage presence and captivated by her elegant, harmonically lush improvisations, which reflected both her classical training and her fascination with modern jazz.
By 1958, she was well enough known to be included in Art Kane’s famous Esquire magazine group photograph of jazz musicians, the subject of Jean Bach’s acclaimed 1994 documentary, “A Great Day in Harlem.” One of the few women in the picture, she stood next to her friend and fellow pianist Mary Lou Williams.
Ms. McPartland’s contributions to jazz were not limited to her piano playing. An enthusiastic and articulate spokeswoman for the music, she lectured at schools and colleges and wrote for Down Beat, Melody Maker and other publications. (A collection of her essays, “All in Good Time,” was published in 1987 and reissued in 2003.) Most notably, for more than 30 years her “Piano Jazz” was one of the most popular jazz showsever heard on the radio.
The show, produced by South Carolina Public Radio (now ETV Radio), made its debut on NPR in 1978. The format was simple: an informal interview interspersed with extemporaneous duets.
“I didn’t have any idea I’d be good at something like this,” Ms. McPartland told The Associated Press in 2000. “I certainly never thought people would know me because of my voice.” But she proved a natural.
As its title suggests, “Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz” was originally a show about piano players. But the guest list came to include vocalists, among them Mel Tormé, Tony Bennett and even Willie Nelson and Elvis Costello, as well as trumpeters, saxophonists and other instrumentalists.
Jazz pianists remained the focus, however, and over the years Ms. McPartland played host to some of the most famous, from the ragtime pioneer Eubie Blake to the uncompromising avant-gardist Cecil Taylor. She gamely played duets with all of them, even Mr. Taylor, whose aggressively dissonant approach was far removed from Ms. McPartland’s refined melodicism.
“I just did the kind of thing he does,” she said. “Or else I went in the opposite direction, and that sounded fairly interesting too.”
“Piano Jazz” was heard on more than 200 radio stations all over the world. It received a Peabody Award in 1983.
Ms. McPartland recorded her last show in September 2010, although she did not officially step down as host until November 2011; “Piano Jazz” has continued with reruns and guest hosts.
Marian McPartland was born Margaret Marian Turner in Windsor, England, on March 20, 1918. She began picking out melodies on the family piano when she was 3, and at 17 she entered the Guildhall School of Music in London.
In 1938, over her parents’ strong objections, she left school to go on tour with a four-piano vaudeville act. “My mother said, ‘Oh, you’ll come to no good, you’ll marry a musician and live in an attic,’ ” she recalled in 1998. “Of course, that did happen.”
While on a U.S.O. tour in 1944 she met the American jazz cornetist Jimmy McPartland in Belgium; they married in early 1946, and she moved with him to Chicago later that year.
Ms. McPartland worked for a while in her husband’s group, but he was a tradition-loving Dixieland musician and she was more interested in the harmonically sophisticated new sounds coming from New York City, where the McPartlands moved in 1949.
Encouraged by her husband, she formed a trio and found work at the Embers, an East Side nightclub, in 1950. Two years later she began what was supposed to be a brief engagement at the Hickory House, one of the last surviving jazz rooms on the city’s once-thriving 52nd Street nightclub row. That booking turned into an eight-year residency.
The McPartlands’ marriage ended after two decades, but they remained close friends and continued to work together occasionally. The divorce, she was fond of saying, did not take. She helped take care of him when he was found to have lung cancer, and they remarried shortly before he died in 1991.
Her survivors include two grandchildren.
Ms. McPartland recorded for Savoy, Capitol and other labels in the 1950s and ’60s, but in 1969, disenchanted with the business, she formed her own record company, Halcyon. “It was quite a job,” she told one interviewer. “I used to actually go to a record store like Sam Goody and tell them, ‘I need that money you owe me.’ ”
Halcyon released 18 albums in 10 years and had a roster that included her fellow pianists Teddy Wilson and Earl Hines as well as Ms. McPartland herself, but her career as an executive ended when she signed with Concord Jazz in 1979. She remained a Concord artist until she stopped recording, just a few years before her death.
The bare-bones accompaniment of bass and drums was always Ms. McPartland’s preferred format, but she also appeared in concert with symphony orchestras, and in 1996 she recorded an album of her own compositions, “Silent Pool,” on which she was accompanied by a string orchestra.
That album provided a rare showcase for an underappreciated aspect of her talent: although she told The New York Times in 1998 that she “never had all that much faith in myself as a composer,” she was a prolific songwriter whose work was recorded by Peggy Lee, Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughan and others. She performed her symphonic work “A Portrait of Rachel Carson” with the University of South Carolina Symphony Orchestra in 2007.
In her last years, Ms. McPartland received numerous honors. She was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 2000, given a lifetime achievement Grammy Award in 2004, inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2007 and named a member of the Order of the British Empire in 2010.
And she continued playing almost to the end. Reviewing her appearance at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in Manhattan the night before her 90th birthday in 2008, Nate Chinen wrote in The Times, “Ms. McPartland still has her pellucid touch and her careful yet comfortable style.”
Unlike some jazz musicians of her generation, Ms. McPartland never became set in her ways; her playing grew denser and more complex with time, and even late in life she was experimenting with new harmonic ideas. “I’ve become a bit more — reckless, maybe,” she said in 1998. “I’m getting to the point where I can smash down a chord and not know what it’s going to be, and make it work.”
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