Wednesday, Aug. 21 — Marian McPartland had no patience for idiots. Before I started an interview with her in 2002, she warned me to keep it short. “I have to do my hair,” she said, as if I were a callow clod blocking her exit from a USO dance in 1944.
But she loved to talk about music and ended up giving a very long interview anyway.
Tuesday night, one of jazz’s classiest and most omnivorous musicians died at 95. McPartland covered the waterfront, from swing to bop to modern jazz. She made all kinds of musicians feel at home on her long-running “Piano Jazz” radio show, but always challenged them, and herself, to come up with a new feeling or a new sound.
McPartland was the first famous person I ever interviewed, in February 2002, when she came to East Lansing and played at the Wharton Center as part of MSU’s Jazz Spectacular. The concert was an eye-opener. She toyed with the most arcane requests from the audience, weaving them into a seamless medley. Her sense of discovery was a revelation. Sometimes it seemed like even she was surprised at the turns the music took.
Here is an edited version of the raw interview, which was quoted in a story back then but never printed in full.
We started with a tough question.
What is swing?
It’s hard to describe it. It’s like having the feeling you get if you're pulling a rubber band, whereas if you're holding a piece of string and trying to get it to -- well, it's just stiff, and that's really the difference for me between swing and anything else. My role model has always been [pioneering composer, pianist and bandleader] Mary Lou Williams, who for me -- the best thing about her was that she could swing no matter what, whether she had a good rhythm section or playing alone, or with a band, whatever she did, that woman could really swing.
What do you think about the comment [jazz critic and scholar] Leonard Feather made about the so-called "three strikes" that you have, or had, against you going into the jazz world [referring to McPartland being British, a woman, and white]?
Well, I don't know. He always said that he said that as a joke, but I don't think so. I mean, it never affected me. I didn't think much about it, although people have always quoted that back to me, and the thing is that I think in England, in Europe, generally jazz is more well thought of than it is here. It never occurred to me that being English would mean that I would hear less jazz. I think I heard more jazz. As far as being a woman, a lot of my role models were women, like Mary Lou or Lil Hardin Armstrong, people that were trailblazers in music, and so it never bothered me, I was just happy to have Leonard write about me at all.
When did you first become interested and committed to a life in jazz?
It was a gradual thing, because I started to play when I was three years old, and, I mean, it wasn't like a lightning bolt, I just heard jazz on the BBC, and, I mean, I played for the kids at kindergarten and then I played for the kids at school, and gradually, you know, you would hear the music of the day, and the BBC played everything from the States, and I got interested in everybody — Fats Waller, James P. Johnson, Duke, everybody — it just gradually took over. There was no doubt about it that that was what I wanted to play, and as far as going into it professionally, you know, that came later, but music generally has always been a big part of my life.
In your book, you describe…
"All in Good Time."
…you describe the scene at the Hickory House…
…having to compete with a counter full of meat that was lit perhaps more brightly than you were.
[Laughs] I said to the owner, "Why don't you put a light on the other meat?"
I understand Duke Ellington used to come in, not only to listen, but also to sit in and play.
Yes he did. He was sort of a… he was really a good friend. Not exactly a mentor, but somebody who was always very kind, and I would always go to see him, no matter where he was playing in New York, and he would always invite me to sit in, and make extravagant remarks about my playing. He was just very good to me.
There's a bit about him popping steak into your mouth as well.
Oh yeah, well…
That I don't remember. I don't remember, because I was sort of green and callow, and he was always kind of flirting, and I wasn't really ready for that.
I wonder if you could comment on what it's like to see so many different innovations unfold in the world of jazz and be able to incorporate them and expand on your own style as you go along.
I don't think any of us want to copy those people, but their way of playing… of course, [Thelonious] Monk is nothing like Bill Evans. I must say that Bill Evans is probably my favorite of all time. But even without copying you kind of soak up some of their ideas and feelings. Of course, Bill and I were very good friends. Actually, I was… I was friendly with Monk too, but not in the same way, because he wasn't a very talkative guy, but I guess I've learned to play a lot of his music, and some of the more quirky ones, I mean, when you think of a guy that can write a beautiful piece like "Round Midnight," and then he can turn around and right a really funny piece like "Off Minor" or "Hackensack," or one of those things..
Yes, the guy was a genius.
They felt they had to come out with a trio album, with Monk playing Ellington tunes, to kind of get the listening public more of a stepwise exposure, so they didn't get the full force of Monk…
Yeah, I've got that record, and he did some funny things with some of those Ellington tunes.
Well, he could hardly help it, though. He could hardly help but be himself.
You were in New York at that time, seeing a talent like that unfold. I imagine there was a lot of resistance to his way of doing things for quite a while.
I used to go down to this dive in the Bowery where he used to play, the Five Spot, and listen to him, and he did come to the Hickory House a couple of times, but he was very, ah, not very loquacious, he hadn't much to say at all.
You enjoy almost universal respect in the jazz world now, but it didn’t happen right away. In your book you talked about was a session in a club on 52nd Street, where you sat in with some musicians who didn't even turn their backs to look at you.
Oh, well, that was a bad scene, that was unfortunate. They didn't know that I was going to be hired and I think that was the problem. I don't even remember who it was now, but luckily, I just sat there and I knew all the tunes that they were going to play so they didn't have to do anything except count off the tunes. I shouldn't have even mentioned that. I suppose at the time it was one of the few strange experiences that I had, because usually I didn't have anything like that happen; in fact, that was the only time.
There's been a lot made of the "cutting contests," the intense competition that went on in Kansas City and New York…
Oh, well it did, in the old days, well sure, my God, can you imagine some of those horn players! Imagine having cutting contests with [pianist Art] Tatum! My God, I wouldn't want to be around when that happened.
I think things are just as competitive [now]. You know, I feel pretty secure with my own thing, but I'm not about to get into a competition with Oscar Peterson! In fact, he and I are good friends. When he did "Piano Jazz," I said to him, "Please leave a couple notes for me."
Some artists see jazz as a confrontation of styles, in some cases becoming rather bitter, but you have adopted a more assimilative approach, and you have tried to reconcile and harmonize many different styles.
Wait a minute, I missed that. Who got rather bitter?
Well, the person I have in mind right now is [avant-garde pianist] Cecil Taylor, who was not crazy about Bill Evans, and who was a controversial figure. I get the impression from reading your book, you have a much more liberal conception of jazz.
I can't imagine why anyone would be bitter about anything, especially Cecil, because he has his own place, and I've had him on "Piano Jazz," and I find him very fascinating, and good to talk to. I mean, I really, if there are any people out there who are bitter about anything, I don't know who they are. I'm certainly not. I feel that I've been tremendously lucky to have "Piano Jazz" and to have been involved with all these great people, like Ray Charles, for Christ's sake, Tony Bennett…
You've had Willie Nelson on recently.
Not only that, but we just went downtown, he was in town and he asked me if I would like to go and sit in with the band and that is one of the great experiences of my life! Because he has a really good band, with excellent bass and drums, and horn players, and an organ, a small organ, and when I wasn't at the piano his sister plays. Anyway, I went down there and we played three or four tunes, you know, "Stardust," and we did "Sweet Georgia Brown" and a couple of things, and blues, and I love the guy, he's wonderful, and evidently he likes me too.
That is wonderful.
The only point I want to make is that people say, "jazz is over here, and country music is over there, and never the twain shall meet," but it's really all the same. I mean, a lot of the stuff he plays is definitely jazz. The bass player really swings, and the guitar player is fabulous, and, you know, what else do you need?
I’ve heard your approach described as more of a tossed salad, than a stew, because in a tossed salad you still have the flavor of the of the original ingredients, but it's blended harmoniously, whereas in a stew or soup, everything has to be pulverized and it's more like a fusion approach…
Don't get me started, otherwise I'll mention Wynton [Marsalis] and his mad “gumbo,” you know, that's the stupidest thing I ever heard in my life.
That leads into your impressions of the jazz scene as it is now. Because you hear some very opposing things: some people say that the music is dead, that it's just a museum piece…
I don't know who would say that. Unfortunately, jazz is always at the bottom of the pile. It probably has the least listeners, but to me, it's the most wonderful creative music, I mean, unfortunately, the public has been kind of dumbed down with the stuff that they make popular. And it's unfortunate, because I think a lot of times people are being shortchanged, but if they have enough curiosity and enough interest to listen to jazz and figure out what it's all about, I mean, I think it's the most rewarding thing. I think the jazz scene is pretty good right now, but I feel very lucky to have been in what they call the "golden age" of jazz, when things were more friendly, there were lots of jazz clubs, every place seemed to be swinging, we used to have people like Oscar Pettiford, Duke, of course, and people like that come in the club and sit in, and there was music all over town, whereas now there are less clubs, but I get the feeling that it's sort of starting to come back. I mean, there are some wonderful young players out there.
Absolutely. The center of gravity seems to be shifting to academia, to the universities.
You were talking about some events with kids there [at MSU], in that jazz week. Like a high school band, or something.
Yeah, there will be that as well. There will be sort of a core sample, from top to bottom.
Well, that's great. I'm happy to be a part of that.
On “Piano Jazz” you play with legends like Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson, but you are also exposing a lot fine musicians nobody ever heard of.
Well, it's true, but they either should be, or maybe being on the show will help them to get more exposure. But it's true, there are these journeymen musicians who work all the time, work all their lives, like a guy we had on named Chuck Folds [pianist who worked with trumpeter Doc Cheatham, among many others, for 25 years]. I don't know if he would ever be a household word, but he's a guy that works continually, has worked all his life; I mean, he's what I think of as a real jazz musician, somebody that's done a lot for the music and given their best until the end of their lives. You know, it's amazing, there are a lot of people out there that you may never have heard of. Have you ever heard of Red Richards?
You see, he was a piano player that worked with my husband [cornetist] Jimmy [McPartland]. He always worked, he was always a sideman with the best groups, and he went all over Europe, played solo piano, and he was working the week before the day he died. He was about 85, and I used to think how wonderful it was that he had such a great attitude about everything. He was just such a wonderful player, but never became a household name.
Well, there are a lot of folks around -- I'm thinking maybe of Horace Tapscott, or Fred Anderson in Chicago -- who just don't want to travel, don't want to get into the performing life, they want to stay in one spot. And it's kind of tragic because a lot of people never find out about them.
Well, there's a guy -- I don't know if you have the record that I made with Willie Pickens.
No, not yet. It looks fantastic, though. He's kind of a barrelhouse, boogie-woogie guy.
Well, the thing is, he's a guy that's been around Chicago. He didn't -- he only traveled one time with [drummer] Elvin Jones, but he mostly has stayed around Chicago, and therefore he's not that well known. He's really a terrific player, and I think making this record has done a lot for him in terms of recognition, and we had a lot of fun doing it, and we still play an occasional date together.
I hadn't heard of him until [your] record.
Probably nobody ever will, but he works continuously, he's raised his family, he just wants to be in Chicago. So I hope you can pick up that record.
It's great that you wield your influence and power so benevolently.
"Wield my power benevolently!" My God, I don't think I have that much power… I'm going to tell my producer that I'm going to "wield my power over her benevolently." I love it! Listen, I've got to go.