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

Marian McPartland hosted NPR's <em>Piano Jazz </em>for 33 years.
Courtesy of the artist
Marian McPartland hosted NPR's Piano Jazz for 33 years.

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.

Marian McPartland and filmmaker Huey after a cast and crew screening of <em>In Good Time</em> in Port Washington, N.Y., in 2001.
/ Films By Huey
Films By Huey
Marian McPartland and filmmaker Huey after a cast and crew screening of In Good Time in Port Washington, N.Y., in 2001.

"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 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.