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Obituaries

Marian McPartland, 95, pianist, host of radio show

In addition to playing the piano and hosting her long-running radio show, Marian McPartland often spoke with students about music and jazz.

2007 AP file

In addition to playing the piano and hosting her long-running radio show, Marian McPartland often spoke with students about music and jazz.

NEW YORK — Marian McPartland — the genteel Englishwoman who became a fixture of the American jazz scene as a pianist and, later in life, as the host of the internationally syndicated and immensely popular radio show “Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz” — died Tuesday at her home in Port Washington, N.Y. She was 95.

Her death was announced by National Public Radio, which carried her show.

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Ms. McPartland was a gifted musician but an unlikely candidate for jazz stardom. She recalled in a 1998 interview for NPR that shortly after she arrived in the United States in 1946, the influential jazz critic Leonard Feather, who himself was born in England and who began his career as a pianist, said, “Oh, she’ll never make it: She’s English, white, and a woman.”

Feather, she added, “always used to tell me it was a joke, but I don’t think he meant it as a joke.”

The odds against any woman finding success as a jazz musician in the late 1940s and early ’50s were formidable, but Ms. McPartland overcame them with grace. Listeners were charmed by her Old World stage presence and captivated by her elegant, harmonically lush improvisations, which reflected both her classical training and her fascination with modern jazz.

By 1958, she was well enough known to be included in Art Kane’s famous Esquire magazine photograph of jazz musicians, the subject of Jean Bach’s acclaimed 1994 documentary, “A Great Day in Harlem.” One of the few women in the picture, she stood next to one of the few others, her friend pianist Mary Lou Williams.

But Ms. McPartland’s contributions to jazz were not limited to her piano playing. An enthusiastic and articulate spokeswoman for the music, she lectured at schools and colleges and wrote for Down Beat, Melody Maker, and other publications. (A collection of her essays, “All in Good Time,” was published in 1987.)

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Most notably, for more than 30 years her “Piano Jazz” was one of the most popular jazz shows ever on the radio. The show had a simple format: an informal interview interspersed with extemporaneous duets.

“I didn’t have any idea I’d be good at something like this,” she told the Associated Press in 2000. “I certainly never thought people would know me because of my voice.”

But she proved a natural.

As its title suggests, “Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz” was originally a show about piano players. But the guest list eventually came to include vocalists, among them Mel Tormé, Tony Bennett, and even Willie Nelson and Elvis Costello, as well as trumpeters, saxophonists, and other instrumentalists.

Jazz pianists remained the focus, however, and over the years Ms. McPartland played host to some of the most famous, from the ragtime pioneer Eubie Blake to the uncompromising avant-gardist Cecil Taylor. She gamely played duets with all of them, even Taylor, whose aggressively dissonant approach was far removed from Ms. McPartland’s refined melodicism.

“I just did the kind of thing he does,” she said. “Or else I went in the opposite direction, and that sounded fairly interesting too.”

“Piano Jazz” was heard on more than 200 radio stations all over the world. Ms. McPartland recorded her last show in September 2010, although she did not officially step down as host until November 2011; “Piano Jazz” has continued with reruns and guest hosts.

Marian McPartland was born Margaret Marian Turner in Windsor, England. She began picking out melodies on the family piano when she was 3, and at 17 she entered the Guildhall School of Music in London.

In 1938, over her parents’ strong objections, she left school to go on tour with a four-piano vaudeville act.

“My mother said, ‘Oh, you’ll come to no good; you’ll marry a musician and live in an attic,’” she recalled in 1998. “Of course, that did happen.”

While on a USO tour in 1944 she met the US jazz cornetist Jimmy McPartland in Belgium. They married in 1946, and she moved with him to Chicago.

Ms. McPartland worked for a while in her husband’s group, but he was a tradition-loving Dixieland musician and she was more interested in the harmonically sophisticated new sounds coming from New York City, where the McPartlands moved in 1949.

Encouraged by her husband, she formed a trio. In 1952, she began what was supposed to be a brief engagement at the Hickory House, one of the last surviving jazz rooms on the city’s once-thriving 52d Street nightclub row. That booking turned into an eight-year residency.

The McPartlands’ marriage ended after two decades, but they remained close friends and continued to work together occasionally. The divorce, she was fond of saying, did not take. She helped take care of him when he was diagnosed with lung cancer, and they remarried shortly before he died in 1991.

Ms. McPartland recorded for Savoy, Capitol, and other labels in the 1950s and ’60s, but in 1969, disenchanted with the business, she formed her own record company, Halcyon.

“It was quite a job,” she told one interviewer. “I used to actually go to a record store like Sam Goody and tell them, ‘I need that money you owe me.’”

Halcyon released 18 albums in 10 years and had a roster that included her fellow pianists Teddy Wilson and Earl Hines, but her career as an executive ended when she signed with Concord Jazz in 1979. She remained a Concord artist until she stopped recording, just a few years before her death.

The bare-bones accompaniment of bass and drums was always Ms. McPartland’s preferred format, but she also appeared in concert with symphony orchestras, and in 1996 she recorded an album of her own compositions, “Silent Pool,” on which she was accompanied by a string orchestra.

Unlike some jazz musicians of her generation, Ms. McPartland never became set in her ways; her playing grew denser and more complex, and even late in life she was experimenting with new harmonic ideas.

“I’ve become a bit more — reckless, maybe,” she said in 1998. “I’m getting to the point where I can smash down a chord and not know what it’s going to be, and make it work.”

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