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Marian McPartland's Storied Life, Told 'In Good Time'

Aug 11, 2012
Originally published on August 19, 2012 12:32 pm

More than half a century ago this week, on Aug. 12, 1958, some of the greatest jazz musicians of the day assembled in Harlem at what was, for them, the ungodly hour of 10 a.m. Fifty-seven players came to East 126th Street to have their picture taken for Esquire magazine.

Freelance photographer Art Kane bunched them together in front of the steps of two brownstones. Some neighborhood kids plunked down on the curb — so did pianist-bandleader Count Basie. And "A Great Day in Harlem" was captured in a black-and-white image.

Jazz pianist Marian McPartland was one of just three women in the photograph. She's wearing a halter dress like the one Marilyn Monroe wore when she stood over that windy subway grate — but McPartland's dress sits flat and proper.

"I never get tired of looking at that picture — one of the world's greatest photos," McPartland tells NPR's Susan Stamberg. "I was working at the Hickory House, and Nat Hentoff came rushing in and said, 'You've got this date to have this picture taken at 10 o'clock.' And I didn't particularly want to get up that early, but I did."

The picture shows Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Gene Krupa, Maxine Sullivan, Mary Lou Williams, Gerry Mulligan, Lester Young, Sonny Rollins — all the '50s gods of jazz. Marian McPartland stands out not only as a woman, but as white, foreign and young.

"It seems like everybody encouraged me and let me be myself, and gradually things grew together," she says. "Nobody bothered whether I was black or white. I just wanted to play better and listen to a lot of people, people I really loved — Bill Evans and horn players like Sonny Rollins. I just wanted to hear everybody."

There's a new documentary film about Marian McPartland. In Good Time: The Piano Jazz of Marian McPartland is full of archival footage, family photos and interviews. Documentary filmmaker James R. Coleman Jr., who goes by the name Huey, spent five years making the movie.

"I was very lucky," he says. "There were so many wonderful moments, and one of the precious moments is when, in the show, Jimmy McPartland — Marian's husband — and Marian are on together and talk about how they first met, which was a real gem to find."

Marian McPartland says she met Jimmy in war-torn Europe.

"He was a foot soldier, and I was working in USO camp shows. Somehow we got together over there, and we were married in Aachen, Germany — so we were married by the time we got back here to Chicago," she says. "It took a while for us to uproot ourselves and move to New York, because that's where things really happened more. And Jimmy found a gig for his band, and I was at the Hickory House, so we were all busy."

McPartland says the Hickory House, the storied jazz spot and steakhouse in midtown Manhattan, was a special kind of club.

"People just walked in," she says. "A lot of times they would just jump on the bandstand and sit in with me. It was a ball."

Duke Ellington, with whom McPartland shared a press agent, would come to see her play, too.

"I remember he made a sort of a subtle criticism," she says. "He said, 'Oh, you play so many notes.' I thought, 'He's obviously telling me that I'm playing too many notes,' so from that I kind of eased off a little bit. I was probably showing off."

All those notes found a home for 30 years on public radio. Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz began in 1979. The first program was recorded in the Baldwin Piano showroom on 59th Street in New York.

Some 700-plus programs later — her last show was recorded in 2010 — the series keeps running with archival tapes, plus new ones with new hosts. At 94, McPartland remains the show's artistic director. Her radio guests included all the jazz greats: Billy Taylor, Bill Evans, Sarah Vaughan, Bill Frisell, Norah Jones, Diana Krall, Dave Brubeck, George Shearing, Herbie Hancock, Ray Charles, Tony Bennett.

Krall, Brubeck, Frisell and many others appear in In Good Time. The film will be screened this fall at jazz festivals in Savannah, Ga., and Seattle.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

More than half a century ago this week, August 12, 1958, some of the greatest jazz musicians of the day assembled in Harlem at what for them was pretty ungodly hour - 10 A.M. Fifty-seven jazz-makers came to East 126th Street to have their picture taken for Esquire magazine. Art Kane, the photographer, bunched them together in front of the steps of two brownstones. Some neighborhood kids plunked down down the curb and so did the pianist-bandleader Count Basie. And A Great Day in Harlem was captured in a black and white image. NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg says there were just three women in the photo, and now one of them is the subject of a documentary film.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: It's Marian McPartland, beloved by fans of NPR's long-running Piano Jazz program. In the 1958 Esquire photo, she's wearing a halter dress like the one Marilyn Monroe wore when she stood over that up-windy subway grate. McPartland's dress sits flat and proper. The 94-year-old jazz pianist remembers the day that legendary photograph was taken.

MARIAN MCPARTLAND: I was working at the Hickory House and Nat Hentoff came rushing in and said you've got this date to have a picture taken 10 o'clock. And I didn't particularly want to get up that early but I did. And as you know, it turned out to be a fabulous photograph.

STAMBERG: So fabulous that in 1994 a documentary film was made about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GREAT DAY IN HARLEM")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This film is the story of a magic moment when dozens of the greatest jazz stars of all time gathered for an astonishing photograph.

STAMBERG: The picture shows Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonius Monk and Charles Mingus, Gene Krupa and Maxine Sullivan and Mary Lou Williams and Gerry Mulligan and Lester Young and Sonny Rollins - all the '50s gods of jazz.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STAMBERG: And Marian McPartland.

MCPARTLAND: I never get tired of looking at that picture, one of the world's greatest photos.

STAMBERG: Well, I'm just looking at you there and you stand out, as you must have, when you first went to New York. Because you had three things that could have gone so against you; you were a woman, you were white, and you were foreign. It occurs to me you had three things that were so in your favor. One was your enormous talent and, two, your great charm, and, three, you were some beautiful young woman - and still are, of course.

MCPARTLAND: Well, trying to be in my old age. It seems like everybody encouraged me and let me be myself. Nobody bothered whether I was black or white. I just wanted to play better and listen to a lot of people, people I really loved - Bill Evans and horn players like Sonny Rollins. And, oh, I just wanted to hear everybody.

STAMBERG: Now, there's a documentary film about Marian McPartland. "In Good Time: The Piano Jazz of Marian McPartland" is full of archival footage, family photos, interviews. A fellow named Huey - one name only - spent five years making the movie.

HUEY: I was very lucky. There's, oh, so many wonderful moments that I found. And one of the precious ones is the show where Jimmy McPartland, Marian's husband, and Marian are on together and talk about how they first met, which was a real gem to find.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IN GOOD TIME")

JIMMY MCPARTLAND: How we met?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah.

MCPARTLAND: The concert - first thing, they had a big jam session there. You know, they were having a big session. Jimmy McPartland's coming, Jimmy McPartland's coming, and I'm saying, you know, who's Jimmy McPartland?

STAMBERG: Jimmy McPartland was a famous jazz cornet player.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IN GOOD TIME")

MCPARTLAND: I asked what do you want to play? Marian had said yes. She said, you know "Honeysuckle Rose?" I said, oh, yes, I know the guy that wrote it. Fast forward, yeah, and asked what should we do? Play. I said, OK. So, I beat off and stamp, beep-bo-ta-do-po, beep-ta-da-tat. She started the de-do-do-da-da and then she started to get excited. Den-ta-da, da-dat-da-da. And she's getting excited. And rushing, you know, and I, oh no. This is it, you know. But...

MCPARTLAND: Yes, you were right.

He was foot soldier and I was working in USO camp shows. And somehow we got together over there and we were married in Achen, Germany. So, we were married by the time we got back here to Chicago. It's Jimmy's hometown. And it took a while for us to uproot ourselves and move to New York, 'cause that's where things really happened more. And Jimmy found a gig for his band. And I was at the Hickory House, so we were all busy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCPARTLAND: It's just a very open kind of club. People just walked in. A lot of times, they would just jump on the bandstand and sit in with me. It was a ball.

STAMBERG: And I know that Duke Ellington came every night - he was a fan of yours - but I'm not sure he was coming every night just to hear you play.

MCPARTLAND: Well, I don't know. He probably came because the food was good. And his press agent was also the press agent for the Hickory House.

STAMBERG: Will you tell what it was that Duke Ellington said about your piano playing?

MCPARTLAND: Oh, I remember he made a sort of a subtle criticism. He said, oh, you play so many notes. I thought he's obviously telling me I'm playing too many notes. So, from that I kind of eased off a little bit in that I was probably showing off.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

(APPLAUSE)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCPARTLAND: Hi I'm Marian McPartland. My guest today on Piano Jazz...

STAMBERG: All those notes found a home for 30 years on public radio. Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz began in 1979. The first program was recorded in the Baldwin Piano showroom on 59th Street in New York. There was Marian, surrounded by pianos for sale, just playing away. Some 700-plus programs later - her last show was recorded in 2010 - the series keeps running and running and running - archival tapes, plus new ones, with new hosts. Marian remains the show's artistic director. Her radio guests over the years have included all the jazz greats: Billy Taylor, Bill Evans, Sarah Vaughan, Norah Jones, Oscar Peterson, George Shearing, Herbie Hancock, Ray Charles, Tony Bennett.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STAMBERG: There is moment in the film which brought me to tears, and it was you and Dave Brubeck.

MCPARTLAND: Oh, yeah.

STAMBERG: When he's playing a song he wrote for you based on rhythms of your name.

DAVE BRUBECK: Ma-ree-an Mc-part-land.

AUDIENCE: Ma-ree-an Mc-part-land.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCPARTLAND: We managed to get three or four choruses out of it. We had fun. I know we were laughing with one another.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STAMBERG: I'd love to talk about your relationship with Diana Krall, because that's been a wonderful relationship over the years, hasn't it?

MCPARTLAND: Yes, it has. When I first met her, she was a very young girl. And she called me on the phone and left a message.

DIANA KRALL: I came home one day and my dad said Marian McPartland phoned. What are you doing calling Marian McPartland? I said, well, I needed, I wanted to ask her for advice on what she did, how did she do what she did. I just wanted to talk to her, 'cause she's the only woman jazz pianist I know of.

MCPARTLAND: I called her back and she seemed sort of surprised. We got along famously, it seems, right away. And I follow her and all her doings.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF I HAD YOU")

MARIAN MCPARTLAND AND DIANA KRALL: (Singing) There is nothing I couldn't do if I had you, if I, if I had you.

STAMBERG: A duet between friends - Diana Krall, accompanied by Marion McPartland - on "Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz." Krall, Brubeck, so many others appear in the new documentary film, "In Good Time: The Piano Jazz of Marian McPartland". It will be screened in the fall at jazz festivals in Savannah and Seattle. You can see the trailer for it at nprmusic.org. Ms. McPartland spoke to us from her home in Port Washington, New York. Thank you, Marion McPartland so much.

MCPARTLAND: Oh, it's a pleasure, Susan.

STAMBERG: Pleasure to talk to you. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.