Marian McPartland bio hits all the right notes

Marian McPartland with Joe Morella, left, and Bill

Marian McPartland with Joe Morella, left, and Bill Crow at the Hickory House, circa 1956. (Credit: William "PoPsie" Randolph)

SHALL WE PLAY THAT ONE TOGETHER? The Life and Art of Jazz Piano Legend Marian McPartland, by Paul de Barros. St. Martin's Press, 496 pp., $35.

Paradise may be a great place to live, but the implicit lack of conflict makes it a lousy home for a dramatist. In similar fashion, it's challenging for any biographer to take on the life of an exemplary human being and fashion a compelling story out of it.

Consider the case of Marian McPartland, pianist, composer and longtime host of NPR's peerless "Piano Jazz" series. For those who know McPartland only through her recorded, live and broadcast appearances, the encomium bestowed by composer Alec Wilder in a letter she saved for years pretty much nails her down:

"You are very talented, you are witty, warm, good, ethical, tender, tolerant, angry, responsible, elegant, stylish, strong, steadfast, womanly, understanding, romantic, demanding, and sensitive, civilized, a trustworthy, generous, indeed a sensible example of the potential splendor of human kind at its best."

So we're done here, right? Not by a long shot, thanks to Paul de Barros' engrossing and illuminating biography, "Shall We Play That One Together?," its title a direct reference to the query she asked of Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, Ray Charles, Esperanza Spalding, Elvis Costello, Tony Bennett, Norah Jones, Steely Dan (!), Clint Eastwood (!!) and many other guests on "Piano Jazz" over more than 30 years. (McPartland, 94, retired as host last year, though she remains the show's artistic director.)

De Barros, jazz critic and pop music editor for The Seattle Times, approaches McPartland's long, rich life as both a knowledgeable fan and an evenhanded observer. She was born in Slough, England, in 1918 "with perfect pitch -- the ability to pick out any note she heard and play it, the way other people might identify a color or shape." This gift served her through her classical music education at London's Guildhall School of Music, and after she dropped out to tour with a vaudeville act that would eventually entertain troops in World War II Europe -- where she met Jimmy McPartland.

The Chicago-born cornetist was an infantryman stationed in Belgium when he met Marian during her USO tour in 1944. They married in Germany and, upon returning to the United States, he became her guide to the still-burgeoning jazz scene in Chicago and then New York.

Theirs was, putting it mildly, a rocky relationship. Jimmy drank too much. She tried to make him stop. Her reputation gradually matched and soon exceeded his at nightclubs throughout Manhattan. Her most significant gig was a 12-year residency at the long-defunct Hickory House on fabled 52nd Street, where her drummer -- and longtime lover -- was the rhythmically resourceful Joe Morello.

With poise, de Barros recounts the particulars of her affair with Morello and, for that matter, the marriage to McPartland, which officially ended in a 1970 divorce. Their relationship, however, endured as they lived together in Bellmore and remarried shortly before Jimmy's death from lung cancer in 1991. Their original divorce, as Marian often quipped, "was a failure."

Such is an example of Marian McPartland's shrewd, self-deprecating wit, on display throughout "Shall We Play That One Together?," as are her flashes of pique and bruised vanity. (Regular listeners of "Piano Jazz" might be surprised to find that the gracious host "could, and often did, swear like a sailor.") The overall portrait de Barros presents is one of an open-minded, openhearted artist who struggled over seemingly improbable circumstances, not the least being gender prejudice, to continue evolving, growing and giving back as much inspiration as she reaped.

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