Though criminally underrated as a player, jazz pianist Marian McPartland served a crucial role in facilitating conversations with geniuses. As the host of Piano Jazz, an hour-long interview show broadcast on NPR for more than thirty years, the British-American prodigy and lifelong scholar delved into the art and craft of jazz with artists including Cecil Taylor, Alice Coltrane, Mokoto Ozone, Lalo Schifrin, Don Byron, Bill Frisell and dozens of others.
To get a sense of McPartland’s skills on the piano, here’s a song from her remarkable third album, Bossa Nova + Soul:
Starting in 1978, McPartland teamed with NPR to produce and distribute a weekly one-hour radio show on jazz. It ended its run in 2011, two years before her 2013 death.
Though Piano Jazz existed long before podcasts, the format is basically the same, and were it introduced through those distribution channels as a new offering, few would be able to tell the difference.
But what makes it a fascinating, absorbing listen is McPartland’s format: They’re having conversations as they sit at a piano, and since she herself is a master instrumentalist, McPartland is able to go deep into theory, style, dynamics, and influence through musical conversations.
Here’s the Piano Jazz interview with Alice Coltrane, in which they discuss her roots as a church organist, her transition to harp and her lifelong devotion to the piano. The performance that follows is astounding.
Walter Becker and Donald Fagan convened with McPartland for a brilliant debriefing in 2002. Here’s an excerpt from conversation. (The full version can be found on NPR Music and lasts an hour.)
One reason McPartland’s playing didn’t get much critical attention — besides the general misogyny in the jazz community — was her aesthetic: she was known as a purveyor of so-called cocktail jazz. An easy-listening offshoot, it lacked the grit of the post-bop and experimental sounds that artists like Taylor, Sun Ra and Bill Evans were exploring.
McPartland, in fact, recorded a record for KPM Music Library called, simply, Cocktail Jazz.
Though seldom mentioned, the pianist and jazz historian played a major role in advancing the music’s import and influence on American culture, if only because its listenership at the time included a lot of scholarly academics, Boomer college graduates with disposable income, and artistically curious listeners tuning into classical music programming between episodes of Morning Edition and This American Life.
In fact, it’s fair to say that some of the used jazz records you find in the wild are the product of McPartland’s conversations, which reached millions of listeners during her lifetime.