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Obit: Marian McPartland, jazz pianist, dies at 95

Marian McPartland plays the piano during a celebration of her 90th birthday on March 19, 2008. The Associated Press

Marian McPartland plays the piano during a celebration of her 90th birthday on March 19, 2008. (The Associated Press)

Marian McPartland, the British-born jazz pianist whose broadcasts on National Public Radio for more than three decades brought insights into the music she loved to millions of listeners, has died. She was 95.

She died recently at her home on Long Island, New York, of natural causes, NPR said on its website.

As host of “Marian McPartland’s 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.

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

An early boyfriend introduced her to Duke Ellington’s records, she wrote, “and from then on I was hooked.”

She was playing jazz when World War II began and joined a troupe of performers entertaining soldiers in France. Playing with various groups for GIs was a valuable experience, “learning more tunes, how to play more simply behind solos, and how to keep better time,” she said.

Her first review, from critic Leonard Feather, began by noting she had “three strikes against her: she’s English, white and a woman.”

“Somehow this seemed like an accolade,” she wrote later. McPartland led a trio at New York’s Hickory House, where she was hired for a two-week engagement and she stayed eight years. Ellington and Peterson were among those who sat in on piano.

Early on, Ellington came up after a set and with a smile told McPartland, “My dear, you play so many notes.”

It took a while, said McPartland, to realize “he was telling me that I was playing too many notes that were getting in the way of what I was trying to say.”

McPartland maintained that pianists need to know a song’s lyrics to perform it well. McPartland also confided her love of ballads, particularly minor-key songs. “If you’re in a group and things aren’t going well, playing some minor-key tune will bring you back,” she said.

She was a champion of women in jazz, singers and instrumentalists as well as pianists, though quiet about her own playing. “I know I’m not bad,” she said when pressed, “but I’m not going to rate myself – that would be terrible.”

Still, she was proud that pianists whose arms she almost literally twisted to appear on her NPR show – Ray Charles, Dave Brubeck, Keith Jarrett – finally agreed and enjoyed playing with her.

McPartland founded Halcyon Records after recording dozens of albums for other labels. Pianists who then recorded for Halcyon include Earl Hines and Teddy Wilson.

She liked the challenge of improvising jazz duets on her broadcasts – though this sometimes made guests leery of coming on the show. Brubeck resisted for years by saying he was too nervous. He consented only when his bass player was allowed to be on hand in the control room if needed.

“So we started the show and he just went at it; you never knew he was nervous,” McPartland said.

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