Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

August 22, 2013

GARY'S WORLD: Gems come and go once in a blue moon

By Gary Nelson
Senior staff writer

CROSSVILLE — It's surely poetic that she passed away on the night of a Blue Moon.

I learned Wednesday morning that one of my all-time favorite interviewers and musicians, Marian McPartland, passed away.

A post on her Facebook page Wednesday morning said, "Marian peacefully passed away at the age of 95 in her home in Port Washington, NY. She died in her sleep at 11:58 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 20 (The Night of the Blue Moon), smiling, knowing that she was surrounded by family and friends."

I'm sure many of you reading this are wondering, "Who's Marian McPartland?"

She certainly wasn't out in the mainstream entertainment world, but she combined the art of jazz music, jazz piano, interviewing and radio broadcasting with such an effortless flair.

McPartland was a jazz pianist and radio host for National Public Radio (NPR) and was the host of a radio show for more than 40 years.

She hosted Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz. NPR described her program as, "The NPR program pairing conversation and duet performances that reached an audience of millions, connecting with jazz fans and the curious alike. She interviewed practically every major jazz musician of the post-WWII era."

Her voice, with that subtle English accent and soft rasp were simply captivating. I discovered her program one night by mistake many years ago and I couldn't stop listening. Her questions, stories, memories, conversation, music and voice just made the program magical.

She was a legend. She's interviewed such greats as Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, Chick Corea, Dave Brubeck and even current Jazz artists such as Norah Jones, Lyle Mays and so many more.

Marian was from England, during World War II she often played piano and entertained soldiers where she met and married a U.S. soldier/musician, Jimmy McPartland, and came to the U.S.

Not only was she an incredibly skilled interviewer later in life, Marian was an accomplished jazz pianist who made a name for herself in New York City after playing in a steak house in the center of New York's jazz scene. That wasn't easy for a woman in the 1950s.

While performing there, many of the jazz greats of the day came by and she met them all, according to McPartland's biographer, Paul de Barros said during an interview with NPR.

She continued to play, perform and record throughout the '50s and '60s. In the late '60s, she started playing jazz records on a New York radio station and other jazz musicians would show up at the studio, unannounced, and they would chat. That lead to her radio program.

McPartland told NPR in 2005 that her interest in music started when she was a young girl, after she heard her mother play piano.

"From that moment on, I don't remember ever not playing piano, day and night, wherever I was," she said. "At my aunt's house, at kindergarten — wherever they had a piano, I played it."

Her interview style was so relaxed and casual. She said that her radio interviews, or conversations, were like jazz music in the sense that they were spontaneous and she would let the conversation roam wherever it would roam. She never wanted it to seem like an interview, but rather more like a conversation.

I truly admired her for the musician she was, the music she made and the interview skills she demonstrated. She interviewed so many jazz legends over the years, but every interview was the same in the sense that it was like a conversation with a friend.

Listeners like me couldn't help but feel like they were listening in on a candid conversation between two friends.

The warmth of her gentle, kind personality always came through no matter who she was interviewing.

She shared her love of jazz music improvisation and interview skills with the world, effortlessly, for so many years. Her piano playing was as smooth and effortless and was a joy to hear.

I know I will truly miss her program and interview style. I, like millions of listeners, looked forward to it each week.

I sure wish there were more Marian McPartlands in this world, instead of the shock-jock, psycho, obnoxious, in your face, super-star wannabe broadcasters that there are now on radio. It seems each one is trying to outdo the other with their "look at me" philosophy and stunts, rather than creating a name for themselves by using a talent.

I guess that's just one of the many reasons I like to listen to so many NPR radio shows.

• • •

Gary Nelson is a Crossville Chronicle staffwriter. His column is published each Friday. He may be reached at gnelson@crossville-chronicle.com.