IASPM-US Interview Series: Paul de Barros, Shall We Play That One Together? The Life and Art of Jazz Piano Legend Marian McPartland

by justindburton on January 30, 2013

Paul de Barros’ Shall We Play That One Together? The Life and Art of Jazz Piano Legend Marian McPartland (St. Martin’s Press, 2012) chronicles the jazz great who pioneered NPR’s “Piano Jazz.” And it was no small feat to research and write, as de Barros reveals below in conversation with Carolyn Graye.

Carolyn Graye: What prompted you to undertake this story?  What was it about McPartland’s career—aside from longevity—that spoke to you initially?

Paul de Barros: Marian’s publicist asked me to take on the project, something she’d been trying to do for years. (I had no idea just how many years—nearly 40—till I got deep into the project.) As someone who has spent most of his life advocating for jazz, I wanted to understand how a woman who had grown up in England playing classical music wound up being one of the most important public advocates for an American music. And of course I loved her radio show.

You cite Leonard Feather’s observation that McPartland had “three hopeless strikes against her,” meaning that she was white, female, and British. You then go on to say that Feather was actually using that observation as an argument for, as opposed to against, the inclusion of women instrumentalists in jazz.  And it was interesting to note that McPartland saw the article as “a good piece of publicity.” Would you say that those “three strikes” actually served her quite well when it came to building a professional identity and career?

Not entirely. There was incredible prejudice against female instrumentalists when Marian came up. She avoided the worst of it in the beginning by being married to the band leader—Jimmy—and then, when she wanted to launch a solo career, by leading her own trio instead of waiting for someone to call. Many others weren’t so lucky. Or shrewd. Marian used Feather’s article to remind folks she had overcome obstacles and that she was not a victim. She did not want to be thought of as being part of a class or group that had been victimized. I do feel that the second wave of feminism gave her career a huge boost, but it was a double-edged sword. She loathed being thought of as someone who had succeeded because she was female almost as much as the idea that being female had been an impediment. Being called “one of the best female jazz pianists” in the ‘70s was almost as left-handed a compliment as the ‘50s chestnut, “pretty good for a girl.” I would say being British definitely helped her on public radio, which has an Anglophile audience. And it is still somewhat exotic for Americans to hear this woman who speaks the Queen’s English talk to Oscar Peterson about “digging” something. I’d hasten to add that if McPartland hadn’t been such a great pianist and radio host, none of this success would have come her way. The bottom line is that she’s very, very good at what she does, and kept getting better.

McPartland identified herself as “somebody who kind of went barging ahead, no matter what,” and she acknowledged the issue of gender throughout her career.  Did she ever acknowledge the issue of race within American society or within the field of jazz?

As I point out in the book, Marian did not carry the kind of baggage American jazz musicians—white or black—do with regard to race. She just didn’t grow up with it. And it seems to me she studiously avoided the whole issue. She brings a humanist ideology (inspired by Karl Menninger, among others) to life and tried to rise above issues of race and gender both. But it’s not as if she didn’t know what was going on when Mary Lou Williams became jealous that Marian had become a famous spokesperson for jazz. She knew when race was in play. But she would not talk about it publicly.

You pointed out that Marian revealed a certain lack of awareness when it came to the benefits and privileges conferred upon her as a member of white, upper middle class society.  Was she rising above issues of race, or avoiding and denying them?   

On racial issues I think Marian adopted a sort of regal attitude of staying above the fray, not getting sucked into a very hot argument to which there was no clear resolution. But I don’t think there’s any question she understood that jazz was an African-American music. Remember, Jimmy was one of the first white kids to play jazz and in the process, valorized black people in a way that was new to white middle class culture. Marian married him. They saw eye to eye on racial issues—that black people had been exploited and undervalued—I mean, that was part and parcel of just *being* in the jazz world as a white person in those days. But the incident in Washington, D.C. where Marian gets annoyed that these angry black artists complain about her being white but on the other hand won’t step up to the plate to help without asking for money revealed a lack of awareness of white privilege, for sure.

I enjoyed your observation that the reviews McPartland wrote for Down Beat  “showed that working musicians approached an album with a different ear from that of the average critic.”  Can you elaborate more on those differences?

Well I think Marian was asking herself “Would I have done it this way?” whether it was tune choices, keys, tempos, chord changes, sequencing, sidemen, whatever. She looked at an album with the knowledge of what goes into making one.  And of course she has big ears, so she would notice things such as whether a bass line was inventive or dull—again, because she’d be thinking, I wonder what it’s like playing with this guy? One thing she did not do, to her credit, is compete with the musicians she was reviewing. In fact, what made her such a good reviewer was that she could also size up an album as a consumer/listener and not get lost in details the average reader wouldn’t relate to. She understood that people listen to music for pleasure.

Jimmy McPartland had a strong personal and historical connection to Bix Beiderbecke, and he (JMcP) provided Marian with access to the jazz community in Chicago and New York that she wouldn’t have had otherwise. To what extent did that impact Marian’s career?

He was everything. And she acknowledged that time and time again. As far as I can tell, Jimmy pretty much taught Marian how to play jazz. She had never really played in a jazz band before she met him, unless you count the vaudeville/variety act she worked with in the USO. She had tried to imitate Teddy Wilson and Bob Zurke and Jess Stacy on her own, and by her own account she was not all that successful at it. Jimmy taught her how to swing and keep time and accompany a soloist. But there was more. Because he was still famous in the ‘40s, all the critics heard Marian playing with him. And even though she was presented as a kind of novelty in Jimmy’s band—hear the woman with English manners play boogie woogie…and Claire de Lune, too!—her name got out. And when they moved to New York, Jimmy’s agent got Marian her first trio gig, which led to her first recording. Even during the Hickory House heyday fans would show up asking for Jimmy and leave when they found out he wasn’t playing.

Marian was much more ambitious than Jimmy, both musically and professionally, and she expressed some regret in later years that Jimmy’s career didn’t take off like hers did.  Did the McPartlands compete with each other professionally?

Not a whit. Marian still feels not just regretful but guilty that she became more successful than the man who had helped her so much. But they enjoyed playing together right to the end and always supported each other’s efforts. In fact, Marian was always trying to get Jimmy to do more.

Marian McPartland built a reputation for an extensive harmonic vocabulary and introspective interpretation, particularly on ballads.  She names Bill Evans as one of her most admired peers, and their legendary conversation during the episode of Piano Jazz that featured Evans reveals a mutually simpatico aesthetic.  How much of that was Evans influencing McPartland, and how much of that was a shared interest in the classical harmonies of Debussy and Chopin?

I think it was the latter. And, for Marian, it wasn’t just Debussy and Chopin, it was the English impressionist Delius, too, whose use of contrary motion and bitonality had became part of Marian’s classical improvising vocabulary before she ever played jazz. I think it’s one of the reasons she sounds so unusual.

Though as I say in the book I think Evans freed up Marian to show her feminine side, which is ironic, since the inspiration came from a man. It’s a pity we don’t have recordings of Marian’s work with Steve Swallow and Pete LaRoca in the ‘60s, because reviews suggest that that’s when her playing became more supple and complex, in the manner of Evans. I do not consider her an Evans disciple; however, she is such a good mimic, I think this worked against her finding her own voice.

In spite of the self-deprecating remarks she made on her show, McPartland seemed consistently confident of herself musically, even when she was performing the Grieg piano concerto to poor reviews.  At the same time, she had some periods of significant self-doubt when it came to her personal life.  How did she reconcile those two things?

I think the self-doubt has been a driver rather than a paralyzer. Marian’s a great one for self-improvement and she’s also very competitive, though you’d never know it by listening to the chatter (as opposed to the music) on her radio show. I think many years of psychoanalysis also gave her confidence. Unlike the character in the Jon Hendricks lyrics, Marian’s analyst didn’t tell her she was “right out of her head” but that she “could be a very important person for others” if she could wrap her head around who she really was. Luckily for us, she did.

You had to confront Marian several times in order to peel back the layers of her carefully constructed public persona.  Did you ever feel like scrapping the project, or were you confident that you could see it through despite her resistance to some of your research?

I often felt like scrapping the project. Marian has given so many interviews over the years that it was hard for her to be casual and not performative. She was always “on.” And she was very impatient. And no, I was not confident that I would actually find out what I wanted to know, not until I was about half way through the research. An agent in New York actually told me I would “never” get Marian to really tell her story. Sometimes I wondered why I stuck with it. It wasn’t until after I gave my first public reading from the book, in Seattle, that a former colleague from The Seattle Times enlightened me. “You got the story,” he said. He made me realize it was the journalist in me that just wouldn’t quit until I found out what I wanted to know, even if it meant a lot of frustrating afternoons.

What was the most surprising or unexpected revelation of your research on McPartland’s life and career—the one thing that completely took you by surprise?

One surprise was certainly how good Marian is at promoting herself. She rarely misses an opportunity and thoroughly understands the value of publicity and how it works. I still chuckle at the moment I discovered Marian sent a letter to Melody Maker to announce her marriage to Jimmy—before she told her parents! I teased her about this and she just laughed.

Paul de Barros has covered jazz for Downbeat and the Seattle Times since 1982.

Carolyn Graye is a jazz singer, pianist, teacher, and scholar in the Seattle area.

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