I was sitting at the piano when a colleague stopped by. “Did you hear that Marian McPartland died today?” I hadn’t. I knew she was getting up there— turns out that she reached 95. So not exactly a shock. But Cedar Walton, another fine pianist, had just passed away two days earlier at 79 years old, Mulgrew Miller at 58 a few months ago, Dave Brubeck at 92 some 9 months ago. All recording artists whose work has poured often from my living room speakers, whose fingered voices were familiar, whose touch on ivory touched my emotions. And now there are silent keyboards that will never be caressed in these particular ways, pathways up and down 88 voices that no one will ever quite travel in the same way. Such a loss invites a pause in business as usual, a moment to praise that such people have been amongst us and now passed on.
Marian McPartland might be remembered as a trailblazing woman pianist making her way in a man’s world, as a British jazz musician, as a composer, as the once-wife of cornetist Jimmy McPartland. But most may remember her for her NPR Program Piano Jazz which she hosted for 33 years. Here she invited contemporary pianists (and other musicians) of all styles and ages to be with her in the studio, talk a bit, play alone and most exciting, play some duets with her. All of this is amply recorded and my own collection includes memorable and insightful sessions with pianists Dave Brubeck, Eubie Blake, Oscar Peterson, Mary Lou Williams, Bill Evans, Chick Corea, Shirley Horn, as well as Lionel Hampton and Dizzy Gillespie. Truth be told, I never liked the way she was always self-effacing, apologizing that she couldn’t play as well as her guest and then going ahead and knockin’ it out of the ballpark.
I had the good fortune to meet Ms. McPartland backstage once at Yoshi’s. In my 20 Feet from Stardom moment, I had played some concerts with jazz bassist Bill Douglass, who was also her preferred bassist whenever she came to San Francisco. I took the 8th grade to see her and one of the kids was doing a report on Marian. Bill arranged a backstage interview, but the child was not well-prepared. She began to ask questions like “When did you start to play the piano?” and I could tell that Marian, now in her ‘80’s, was getting impatient and strongly suggested that the girl get her act together. Oops! I saw the girl some ten years later and reminded her of the story, but she didn’t remember it. So I guess no damage was done.
Marian had a wonderful celebration at 85, a tribute concert with an impressive array of jazz artists, captured on the swingin' CD 85 Candles. Like Dave Brubeck, she continued to perform into her 90’s and retired from the Piano Jazz show in 2011— at 93 years old. Jazz musicians like this are my heros, giving me that music never need stop to play golf. But now that four pairs of hands are forever still, the world is just a little bit poorer. Thank you Marian, Cedar, Mulgrew, Dave.
And new hands coming up all the time, searching for their own particular pathways and voices that will be remembered. How it goes on.