It’s the 99th birthday anniversary of pianist Marian McPartland, who made an enormous contribution to jazz culture not only with her nuanced approach to jazz piano and composition, but with the iconic NPR show, Piano Jazz, in which she interviewed and played alongside hundreds of her most distinguished piano peers, as well as no small number of singers. My only real encounter with her was a half-hour conversation when I was asked to write liner notes to a CD release of a Piano Jazz session with Elvis Costello. She was extraordinarily gracious, and wrote me a nice note after the CD came out. I highly recommend Paul DeBarros’ excellent biography of McPartland, Shall We Play That One Together?
“I would make a terrible singer, because I probably would always forget the lyrics,” says Marian McPartland with characteristic self-effacement.
In point of fact, McPartland has few peers at the fine art of making other singers sound their best, a proposition bolstered by this encounter with singer-composer Elvis Costello from a September 2003 installment of Piano Jazz. She’s been at it for a while: she began her professional life on a four-piano vaudeville gig in 1936, and entertained the troops during World War II. On a USO tour, she met and married cornetist Jimmy McPartland, accompanied him to the U.S. in 1946, toured with his trad band, and subsequently found employment as a trio leader in classy 52nd Street venues like the Embers and the Hickory House. During those years she met everyone who was anyone in the business, and around 1970, she established a record label (Halcyon), on which she documented herself prolifically. One album was a subtle recital of the songs of Alec Wilder (Marian McPartland Plays the Music of Alec Wilder, Jazz Alliance, TJA-10016); in 1978, Wilder, about to leave a syndicated NPR show he had hosted based on his book American Popular Song, recommended McPartland to replace him, and Piano Jazz was born.
“A lot of singers, like Jackie Paris, would come to the Hickory House and sit in,” McPartland recalls. “We’d say, ‘What key?’ and they’d do whatever they wanted.”
During Piano Jazz’s quarter-century, McPartland has brought a similar attitude to impromptu dialogues with several dozen world-class singers, famous and obscure. Her sessions with Carmen McRae, Rosemary Clooney and Steely Dan are Concord releases; awaiting release are episodes with stand-up singers Tony Bennett, Alicia Keys, Linda Ronstadt, Karrin Allyson and Jane Monheit, and singer-instrumentalists Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, Norah Jones and Diana Krall.
“I like hearing somebody else take the song and do whatever they want,” says McPartland, encapsulating her philosophy at 87. “I try to play chords that will make him or her feel good and not get in their way, and listen a lot, and not play lots of runs.”
McPartland’s impeccable manners proscribe her from mentioning that she can call up on a moment’s notice seemingly every song composed during her seven professional decades. She’s much too polite to discuss her knack for spontaneously molding an interpretation that matches the tonal personality of her partner. True to her generation’s aesthetic, she always tells a story, wedding a vivid harmonic imagination to unfailingly melodic imperatives. When interviewing her guests, she discreetly shapes the flow like a veteran sideman, deploying conversational equivalents of laying-out, comping, and pithy solo turns.
“My first reaction was one of surprise, as I am neither a jazz musician or a pianist,” says Costello—Krall’s spouse—of receiving McPartland’s invitation. “However, I am an admirer of Marian McPartland, and her humor, ease of manner, and depth of understanding of the repertoire made this an absolute pleasure.”
“We had a wonderful time, because everything he sang was something that I knew well,” McPartland corroborates. “I had never met Elvis, and I found him a very charming guy. We sat and talked about tunes and keys, and just did one after another. It was all very easy.”
“I have never been tempted to record a ‘Standards’ album, but I have recorded at least an album’s worth of such material over the years,” says Costello, who first reached a mass audience playing Punk-inflected Rock-and-Roll two years before Piano Jazz kicked off. “Revisiting songs I had known my whole life, such as ‘My Funny Valentine,’ which I recorded 25 years previously, was exactly what this opportunity was all about.”
Over the years, Costello sustained his fan base while, in his words, “moving away from orthodox rock-and-roll styles.” He expanded his craft, and developed a parallel identity as an art musician informed by polyglot influences. “The feeling for songs changes in time just as the voice changes,” he says, and here, wrapping himself in a velvet-to-husky baritone, resonant with vibrato, he addresses the program—comprised primarily of dark “blue ballads,” including two Costello originals—with in-the-moment presence. Each song connects in some way to his personal history.
Costello’s sense of jazz dates to his earliest years. “My father [Ross MacManus, b.1927] was a bebop trumpeter, and he and my mother ran jazz clubs on Merseyside [near Liverpool] in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s,” Costello relates. Costello’s mother also ran a record store, and the MacManus household moved to a soundtrack of top-shelf pop singers like Nat Cole, Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, as well as progressive instrumentalists like Clifford Brown, Charles Mingus and Miles Davis. “These sounds were familiar to me, and I heard a wide range of ballads other than the ones I grew up buying as a teenage rock-and-roll fan,” Costello continues. “When my young adult curiosity took me back to many of those artists and their recordings, I found that they were equally vivid.”
In 1955, the year after Costello’s birth, Ross MacManus took a job as vocalist-trumpeter with the Joe Loss Orchestra, a well-established commercial band that first broadcast on BBC in 1933, and didn’t disband until the ‘70s.
“Joe Loss was somebody I listened to a lot,” says McPartland, who recalls seeing Loss perform when she was 19. “They played what I would call dance music of the time. It was a very good band, and though I don’t recall listening with great concentration, it must have stayed in my head.”
This is Costello’s first recording of Harry Warren’s “At Last,” a Glenn Miller vehicle from Orchestra Wives (1942). His father sang it on a 1958 EP by Joe Loss, six years after Ray Anthony’s cover made the top ten and two years before Etta James’ thrilling, iconic version.
“I played my Dad’s recording of the tune on Desert Island Discs [a BBC show],” Costello tells McPartland. “Both my parents have been very supportive all through my career and understood the different things that I’ve done, but obviously their heart lies in the music we’re speaking about today.”
Aside from “My Funny Valentine” (it was the B-side of a 1978 EP), Costello reprises “Gloomy Sunday,” a melancholic Billie Holiday vehicle from ‘30s that he recorded on Trust, from 1981. “They Didn’t Believe Me,” inspired by Mel Tormé’s 1947 version, appears on a U.S. promo edition of The Juliet Letters, Costello’s venturesome early ‘90s collaboration with the Brodsky String Quartet. You can hear him sing “You Don’t Know What Love Is” and “The Very Thought Of You” on a DVD documenting a 1981 encounter with Chet Baker at Ronnie Scott’s Club in London.
Baker subsequently recorded Costello’s “Almost Blue,” Costello’s “most broadly interpreted song.” Costello wrote it with the trumpeter in mind when he was “in the thrall of” Baker’s version of “The Thrill Is Gone.” During this time, he tells McPartland, he had “started writing on the piano, and made a conscious decision to try and learn from the music I had literally grown up with as a child, rather than as a teenager.”
Of more recent vintage is “I’m In The Mood Again,” the finale, as it also is on North, a suite of 11 self-composed piano ballads which Costello was preparing at the time of this recording. The repertoire on that album contains, in Costello’s words, “harmonies, instrumental timbres and rhythms derived from jazz, but they are just songs and music that I imagined.”
After Costello’s final breath on “The Very Thought of You,” McPartland remarks, “You did that like a jazz singer,” referring to his fresh phrasing and identifiable-in-one-note sound. Perhaps they’ll meet again.
“I might have suggested we perform Mingus’ ‘Weird Nightmare’ or one of my lyrics for Mingus’ ‘Self-Portrait In Three Colors’ or Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Blood Count,’” Costello says. “But then we would have no repertoire for a return appearance on the show.”