Jazz pianist Marian McPartland dies at 95

04:40 PM, Aug 21, 2013

Marian McPartland, legendary jazz pianist and radio host with deep ties to Rochester, has died at 95. (Seth Wenig/AP)/


Written By Jeff Spevak | Staff music critic

Marian McPartland, a renowned jazz pianist and host of the National Public Radio show Piano Jazz, had ties to Eastman School of Music that continued to surprise students and faculty in recent years.

McPartland died of natural causes Tuesday night at her Port Washington home on Long Island, said Anna Christopher Bross, an NPR spokeswoman.

Over a career that spanned more than six decades, McPartland became a fixture in the jazz world as a talented musician and well-loved radio personality.

As host of Piano Jazz, she interviewed and played with pianists, backed singers and musicians including Oscar Peterson, Keith Jarrett, Benny Goodman, Norah Jones and Elvis Costello. The show, which she began hosting in 1979, became the longest-running cultural program of its kind on NPR, and she was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2007. She stopped hosting the show in 2010 while continuing as artistic director.

NPR Music and South Carolina ETV Radio, which produces Piano Jazz, were paying tribute to McPartland on air and online Wednesday, the station said.

Every week for 34 years, Marian seduced her guests and her audience with her tremendous wit, compassion and musicianship,” said Anya Grundmann, executive producer and editorial director of NPR Music.

McPartland called Rochester “my second home,” and had strong ties the the Eastman School of Music. It was her longtime friendship with composer Alec Wilder, a Rochester native, that would most influence her career. Wilder suggested that McPartland launch Piano Jazz, the nationally syndicated radio program that turned the pianist into a household name.

He also invited her to teach and perform at Eastman. Her close relationship with the school was recognized in 2003 when McPartland was named an Eastman Artist, one of the conservatory’s highest honors. The school also awarded her an honorary doctorate of music in 2007.

Alec was really responsible for getting me to Eastman and making Rochester my second home,” McPartland said in a 2003 interview with the Democrat and Chronicle, when she was her to play with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra.

Another close friend was Rayburn Wright, the professor of jazz studies who was one of the key figures in transforming the Eastman into a renowned music school. Wright’s piece “From This Moment On” was specifically written for McPartland. She played it at a 2006 Kilbourn Hall tribute to Wright, who died in 1990.

McPartland’s piano duets were “exercises in cooperative improvisation, in a manner exemplifying the jazz spirit,” critic Nat Hentoff wrote in the Wall Street Journal in 2008, marking her 90th birthday.

Born Margaret Marian Turner in England, she began playing classical piano at the age of 3. At 17, she was accepted to the prestigious Guildhall School of Music. She left in her third year to play piano with a touring vaudeville act — to the chagrin of her parents, who she said were “horrified,” and a professor who called popular music “rubbish.”

During World War II, while playing for Allied troops with the USO and its British equivalent, she met her husband, Chicago cornetist Jimmy McPartland. He died in 1991.

Jeremy Siskind, an Eastman student in 2009, was stunned when she called him and asked him to appear on Piano Jazz at the urging of his professor at the school, Harold Danko. “We played some duo piano; that’s one of her favorite things to do on the show,” said Siskind, who recently finished a post-masters degree at Julliard and will soon be moving to New York City in search of a career.

McPartland was legendary for the research she would do on her guests, and stunned Siskind when she mentioned a piece that he had composed while still in high school. “She said, ‘Let’s play it!’ ” Siskind said. And they did. “It still blows my mind that she uncovered it,” he said.

Eastman professor of piano Tony Caramia met McPartland when she was at the school in 2002 and took the opportunity to show her some old video from the1930s of McPartland when she was touring England with Billy Mayerl and the Four Claviers. McPartland was stunned to discover that Caramia was specializing in Mayerl, a novelty pianist, as she knew of no one else who was playing his music. Shortly thereafter, she invited him to be a guest on Piano Jazz.

I was thrilled, flabbergasted, wondering if she had the right person,” Caramia said Wednesday. “She maybe knew me as a teacher, I doubt she had ever heard me play.” Caramia had just assigned his students to study a Mayerl piece called “Here’s That Rainy Day,” and now he was performing it on piano jazz.

Here she’s interviewed Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, all the greats,” Caramia said. “I was not a famous pianist, and I think she was intrigued by the novelty of that. She was gracious, she was interested in me and had very good questions. She listened very well to my answers and didn’t have a preconception of what a teacher should do.

She was like Aunt Marian. Aunt Marian McPartland.”

Funeral arrangements were not immediately available.