I discovered last night that pianist Marian McPartland died in August. Modern audiences will most remember McPartland for her NPR show Piano Jazz, which began broadcasting in 1978 and ran until she was well into her nineties. There was a reason why musicians loved sharing a stage and microphone with Marian; she knew everyone in the jazz world for three quarters of a century and was encyclopedia of knowledge. If you watch her scenes from the 1994 documentary A Great Day in Harlem, about the 1958 Art Kane photograph of the same name, you will see that.
One misconception of her, probably stemming from her intelligence and British accent, is that she was proper and genteel. In reality, Marian was tough as they came and could hold her own in a jazz world much different than the one we know today. It was less institutionalized, a world of dive night clubs, alcoholics, and late hours. People were tougher back in those days, less likely to speak in euphemism. They had, after all, lived through the Depression and the Second World War. Marian was unafraid to call something what it was. If feelings were hurt in the process, so be it.
The best known story of Marian McPartland is an exchange she had with Duke Ellington. Asked his thoughts after a performance, the Duke replied that “You play so many notes.” Initially she took this as a compliment to her technical prowess. Upon later reflection she realized it was an admonishment to curb her excesses. In music, as in life itself, it is what we leave out that often says the most. Thankfully for the rest of us Marian took Ellington’s advice to heart. Here is the proof.