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Marian McPartland: Expatriate Extraordinaire! Piano Jazz and Joy

Marian McPartland - piano
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Marian McPartland – piano – via Tom Marcello on Flickr.

I’ve been thinking a lot about expatriates.  My sister is getting ready to be one for the second time,  moving to South Africa.  2010 was 25 years since we moved from Canada to the United States.  One expatriate who has inspired me is jazz pianist Marian McPartland.  I came across her NPR interview show, Piano Jazz, by chance on the radio.  I was just beginning to realize how much I wanted to make art, but I wasn’t familiar with doing things I actually enjoyed.  I felt somehow that if I liked something, that meant it was irrelevant.  What struck me about Marian McPartland was how much she enjoyed playing the piano, talking to her guests, listening to their playing, then playing with them in that wonderful conversation that comes when you are truly listening to someone and responding.

Marian(her real name was Margaret!) grew up in England, was passionate about music, heard jazz on the radio, joined a piano quartet and toured entertaining the troops during WWII with the USO, and met American jazz musician Jimmy McPartland, got married, and moved to Chicago with him after the war.  She moved to New York and led a trio at the Hickory House for 8 years, and became a jazz composer.  Eventually she started her own record label, Halcyon, because she believed jazz musicians were treated as second class citizens by record companies. This was 1969, and highly unusual for a woman to up and start her own label.

In 1978 she began her interview program Piano Jazz, and over 30 years later she has created an incredible oral history of some of the greatest jazz musicians in addition to classical and popular artists such as Norah Jones, Elvis Costello and Alicia Keys.   At 90 she played at her own all-star jazz birthday party!  I am awed by her journey from British classical music student to American jazz icon.  Be sure to listen to her voice.  She doesn’t sing, but her voice is melodious, with a mixture of British and American accent all her own.  She is gracious as a host, but isn’t afraid to swing the pieces she plays.  Her guests rise to the occasion of playing with her.

Listening to Marian every week for an hour, I began to appreciate the energy that comes from doing what you love, from being true to your vision, from delighting in life.  I played flute in Junior High band, and took classical flute lessons, but never caught the spark of the music, the flow.  But I can hear it, and appreciate it, and be inspired by it.

Here she is accompanying Norah Jones on September in the rain:

And here she is being interviewed by Billy Taylor:



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