(Marian McPartland to Enstice and Stockhouse, 2004)
From the piano, Marian McPartland has created a body of work significant in its quality, quantity and style. Marian McPartland draws from a stylistic breadth and encyclopedic knowledge of jazz music. She ranges from an orchestral approach to a fine-drawn sketch in articulating a jazz theme. There is a romantic lushness to her playing, and she is constantly inventive, using her technique to make each interpretation fresh and creative. Over and above technique and invention is her approach to lilting melody, and she remains true to the shape of the melody in improvising. This discussion will focus on particular aspects of Marian McPartland's pianistic style from several perspectives. They include:
critiques by non-performers, including music journalists;
influences that have shaped Marian McPartland;
critiques from fellow musicians and composers;
These various viewpoints are reinforced with appraisals by Marian McPartland, drawn from interviews and her writings.
First, it is essential to examine the process of jazz improvisation. For a pianist, jazz improvisation involves simultaneously conforming to the tradition of jazz piano, while also making a spontaneous personal statement. Further, it requires an ability to communicate the emotion behind that statement not only to musicians on stage but also to an audience. Jazz, like classical music, is based on a set of musical conventions. For a musical statement to be identifiable as a jazz utterance, essential elements are a sense of swing, an ear for sophisticated harmonies, and the ability to structure an improvisation on the theme. According to one musician, 'Jazz asks for your statement about who you are,' (Keith Jarrett, Foreword to Doerschuk, 2001: vi). Marian McPartland has been quoted as saying, 'Each of us is an individual - unique, different. The kind of life we have lived comes out in our music' (Hentoff, 2004: 204-205).
From her entry into American jazz in 1946, Marian McPartland has lived a fully realized jazz life, in that her career has unfolded step by step with parallel developments in twentieth and twenty-first century jazz. As only the most successful jazz musicians can do, she learned to accommodate the fluctuations of the jazz scene over a lifetime spanning several decades. Central to this survival was an ability to respond to jazz's shifting popularity and changing styles. Since the 1950s, Marian McPartland's style as a jazz pianist has evolved hand in hand with her expanding repertoire.
Writer James T. Maher, who wrote the Foreword to Marian McPartland's 1987 book All In Good Time, has had a long acquaintance with her style (McPartland, 1987). Maher’s Foreword is also reprinted in the 2003 Illinois Edition of her earlier book, Marian McPartland’s Jazz World: All In Good Time. Maher claims that Marian McPartland's style has been changing and developing since her tenure in the Hickory House, and her playing is a reflection of what was happening in jazz through the years (Hansson, Interview of James T. Maher, 1999).
By the mid-1960s, her style had progressed from its derivative roots, as one critic attempted to point out in a concert review:
Her playing has evolved from its 1946 schizoid state of half bop and half swing into a predominant Bill Evans-ish mode. But she has retained what she's always had: musical understanding (and not every musician has this) (DeMichael, 1966).
Through this heightened musical understanding, Marian McPartland easily absorbed the hierarchical jazz past, bringing borrowings and imitations of pianists she admired into her playing. As she matured, her ears picked up on stylistic developments in jazz, such as bebop, as they unfolded around her. Maher referred to her 'gift of hearing in a distinctive way' as 'instinctive analyzing'. He defined this ability as a three-step process, and as an example he cited Marian's ability to incorporate the jazz techniques of Art Tatum into her playing:
Marian was able to hear, pick out, and draw upon the stimulating, innovative and unique aspects of Tatum. And she has never stopped doing that. She would hear things that are there to be developed, like 'Busoni's listener' - the person who completes the music.
Through being able to isolate, identify and apply the stylistic devices she heard in other players' interpretations, Marian McPartland developed what Maher described as a style in the 'theme and variations tradition':
She would run through a tune, and, in consequence, become involved in variations which revealed harmonic complexity and step-by-step development, until it became a six-minute suite containing elements of stride, Teddy [Wilson], [Thelonious] Monk, and free improvisation. Spellbinding! (Hansson, Interview of James T. Maher, 1999).
Marian McPartland's sense of invention, transforming phrases into new ideas and creating complex harmonic and rhythmic layers under the melodic line during an improvisation, was also observed by a critic for the Daily News:
Marian McPartland is a superb pianist with a true jazz feel to her work and hands that seem to be constantly inventing new musical phrases, opening up familiar ones for a new look, and exploring areas of harmony and counterpoint. The music that results not only swings - it all but sings (O'Haire, 1974). © New York Daily News, L.P. Reprinted with Permission.
Esteemed jazzcritic Whitney Balliett also identified Marian McPartland's skilful assimilation of other stylistic influences, the process by which she combines technique and emotion in an improvisation, her faultless sense of time, and her vast repertoire:
Marian McPartland is a lively, growing repository of jazz piano playing, and, more important, of the emotions that made Hines and Tatum and Powell masters. She is a rigorous, two-handed pianist who can move in a measure from a passage suggesting the traceries of winter branches to one recalling booming summer sunsets. She is a chordal pianist whose harmonies sometimes rival Tatum's, and a clean fluid, single-note player whose lines are full of surprising runs and freshly accented notes. She swings very hard, and her sense of time, whether in a stop-time chorus or in one of Tatum's bedazzling arrhythmic whirlpools, is faultless. And she has an encyclopedic repertoire (Balliett, 1977: 6).
Reviewing her at The Cookery in 1977, Balliett opined that, although Marian McPartland does not have a Style as such, she has become an ‘irresistible pianist’. She has evolved into ‘a highly compact, highly charged distillation of her contemporaries and of the best pianists who came before her’, her playing evocative with ‘intelligent echoes’ of all her influences (Balliett, 1977: 6-7)
Due to her exceptional ear and her duets with so many other pianists on Piano Jazz, Marian McPartland has accumulated a memory bank of any tune in any context, and liner notes from a 1985 solo piano recording define her style through the repertoire she chooses to perform:
The McPartland style is flexible and complex, and almost impossible to pigeonhole. Audiences who type her as a modern player, light-fingered and elegant, may be surprised by a rollicking left-handed romp through the blues. Listeners looking for an orthodox diet of American Popular Songs will find their Berlin, Arlen and Kern punctuated occasionally with Lennon and McCartney. Marian ranges happily across the landscape of jazz, from Hoagy Carmichael to Chick Corea. She plays Dixieland and bebop with aplomb, and seems equally comfortable improvising on the theme from Sesame Street and trading staccato runs with McCoy Tyner. She'll play almost anything, but her touch and talent are most impressive on ballads. She understands intuitively that ballads, like the blues, can span a full spectrum of emotional colors (MacFadyen, 1985).
There is no doubt that Marian McPartland inhabits a unique musical realm, most evident when she plays ballads. Another critic, Dan Morgenstern, former editor of DownBeat, agrees that Marian McPartland's individual sound emerges most powerfully in her ballad playing:
Her individualism is apparent in her harmonic sensibility, with her way of voicing chords being particularly effective on reflective ballads where a range of emotions shine through (Hansson, Interview of Dan Morgenstern, 2004).
In interpreting ballads, Marian McPartland draws upon what has been referred to as the 'harmonically rich romanticism' of Bill Evans (Enstice and Rubin, 1994). By way of illustration, this quality was identified in an interpretation of the ballad 'My Funny Valentine':
Marian McPartland lays out the tune with an absolutely crystalline touch, offering a sequence of melodic variations with ever-so-slightly displaced rhythmic accents, again like [Bill] Evans, in a performance that manages to steadily mount in intensity without ever blowing its cool (Friedwald, 2002: 366).
Marian McPartland admits that she was profoundly influenced by the emotion and lyricism behind the controlled romanticism of pianist Bill Evans. Like Evans, she employs a legato touch, flowing melodic lines, and voicings made up of the interesting colors of ninths, augmented elevenths and thirteenths to enrich her harmonies. In a recent compilation of profiles of eighty-eight major jazz pianists, Marian McPartland was distinguished for her harmonic sense:
Harmony is the essence of Marian McPartland. She enjoys nothing more than casting a classic tune in a new light. It's light, after all, more than the shadows, that plays in her performances. Each note she plays illuminates a thread as it weaves through the fabric of her chords. More than this, though, the emotion behind these solid conceptions defines her work. Buoyant at medium tempos, reflective on ballads, the McPartland style has a near-universal appeal to the casual and the critical listener (Doerschuk, 2001: 161).
The balance of light and shade in her playing is part of her ability to blend different styles into a satisfying interpretation. Another compendium of conversations with twenty-one jazzwomen, described Marian McPartland's style as appealing because of its sensitive blend of disparate jazz elements:
With a timeless elegance, McPartland blends bebop, modal, and occasional dissonance into a mainstream style that has proven appeal for a cross-section of the jazz audience. Her work at the keyboard is highlighted by thick chords, rich harmonies, and sensitive melodic lines, all of which are reminiscent of one of her major influences, the late pianist, Bill Evans (Enstice and Stockhouse, 2004: 233).
These insights, garnered from a range of music critics and books on jazz musicians, shine a light on the evolution of Marian McPartland's style from that of adulation and imitation to a style that is a subtle distillation of all her influences, particularly that of Bill Evans.
Marian McPartland has always been vocal on the subject of her style, and has referred to Evans' influence in her writings and in interviews. This research unearthed the following quotation from Marian McPartland herself when asked about her individual sound:
'I think I sound like a poor man's Bill Evans,' Ms. McPartland explained. 'I'm sort of the bebop in the Bill Evans bag. My music is also in the Shearing mode but not as classical. You can even hear some Corea and Herbie Hancock in my playing. That's what's great about jazz. You can hear everybody but the music is still your own. I like that' (Press Clipping, n.d.).
Marian McPartland contributed to an article on stylistic influences for Piano & Keyboard in 1999, stating that the influence of Bill Evans was paramount:
What has stayed with me [from the 1950s] is Bill Evans. There's still so much of Bill that seems to permeate through everything that is played today, even though in some areas he wouldn't be thought to be an influence on every piano player I can think of - everybody! (McPartland in Salmon, 1999: p. 49).
Aspects of Evans' approach that permeate Marian McPartland's playing are his rootless voicings, ambiguous chords and linear architecture in improvising, stylistic features that changed the concept of jazz piano playing. During Evans' evolution as a pianist, Marian McPartland was a participant and an observer, and her extrasensory perception enabled her to seize upon musical elements that were changing stylistically, and to bring these innovations into her own playing. Central to Bill Evans' conception is the idea of allowing each piece to be a completely independent structured entity, as he demonstrated on the tune 'The Touch Of Your Lips' on Piano Jazz in 1978 (McPartland, Interview of Bill Evans, 1978).
As an eloquent spokesman on matters jazz, fellow pianist Dr. Billy Taylor is also equipped to comment on Marian McPartland's style. Taylor and Marian McPartland have followed similar career paths. Although Taylor has recently retired from public performance, he has also occupied a prominent role in the jazz world as a pianist, an educator, a writer, and a media figure. Being extremely articulate about his craft, he was able to pinpoint his colleague's stylistic growth across the decades and evaluate her flexibility as a stylist:
What I admire most about Marian is that she has been a pianist who has always wanted to grow. To hear her progress from her Chicago-style playing to the cutting edge of things in terms of her trio playing is terrific. Not many musicians can make that transition. Since she's been doing her own show and matching wits and talents with her guests, she has really blossomed. Many of the things her guests have suggested she just follows right along with. She's not only a very fine pianist, but also very flexible (Zych, 1997: 33)
Taylor also expressed the subtleties of the McPartland style:
Her playing is very subtle, very sophisticated, very melodic. She has developed a very personal approach to contemporary harmonies that I think suits her direction these days. Marian is the kind of person who looks for interesting melodies, and that's reflected in her solo work. And she's marvelous as a solo artist; she's a two-handed pianist, which is something not always present in the playing of some younger pianists these days. They tend to need a rhythm section to do some of the things they want to do. But her playing is very complete in itself (Zych, 1997: 35).
Fellow composer, Alec Wilder, coined a word to describe Marian McPartland's ability to improvise in her own special way. When Wilder presented Marian with a piece especially written for and dedicated to her, he would request her to 'Kindly McPartlandize'. What Alec Wilder was referring to was Marian McPartland's ability to conceptualize what she desires to play, then to apply layers of melodic, harmonic and rhythm invention to her improvisation on any theme. Another aspect of the improvisor's craft is that the theme will never be played the same way twice.
In 1974, Wilder referred to Marian McPartland's improvisational skill in another interview:
She plays some amazing things, but she won't remember them. They grow out of the music as she plays, and disappear when the playing is over (Brehm, 1974).
What Wilder had seized upon here is the quality of organic growth arising out of a McPartland improvisation. The essence of the original theme is still there, but it has changed in subtle ways through her technique of transforming the musical elements under her fingers simultaneously.
Another explanation for this elusive quality is what Marian McPartland once personally identified as a desire to 'live dangerously' when improvising on a theme:
Jazz is improvisation of a theme, and I consider myself a jazz musician. I enjoy changing songs around - the tempo, the phrasing, any part of it really. I live dangerously - in a musical sense. It's worth making an occasional mistake, otherwise it's all so repetitive. If you keep playing the same thing every night it's no longer improvisation, it's a piece (Chemerka, 1980).
One of Marian McPartland's favorite bassists, Michael Moore, believes that she epitomizes the open artistic mind, and that her approach to improvising demonstrates this quality:
She's never been locked in one particular style, and always kept an open mind about her music. I can say that as long as I can remember, she kept growing all the time. She was never content to be in one place, and always kept improving. She has great ears and great harmonics. Because of her ear, she can go into two or three different keys in a tune and shift with no problem (Zych, 1997: 34).
As well as having a keen and sensitive ear, Marian McPartland also possesses a sense that enables her to 'visualize' colors associated with different keys. When she moves around different key centers, she creates a palette of tonal colors. Nuances of color have always inhabited Marian McPartland's playing, and a discussion of the unusual phenomenon named 'synaesthesia' is warranted. This gift enables a musician to visualize keys as colors, and is a rare phenomenon, even among musicians. In a 1983 interview, Marian McPartland revealed that while she was doing musical experiments in schools in the 1960s and 1970s she discovered that she could ‘see’ keys in different colors while she was playing:
'I never thought about it,' she said. 'It just came out. "I see the color yellow when I play this chord." I surprised myself when I said it. Working with kids brings out things you never knew. I see D as yellow and B as a dark-red plum color, and so on. I don't know where it came from. Every key has a different set of vibrations and I've always liked the sharp keys and more brilliant keys rather than F and C. They just seem more exciting to me, so maybe the colors go along with the feelings I get from playing them' (Unterbrink, 1983: 71).
This ability was discussed in another 1983 interview:
I've been able to do that all my life. You see, nobody ever told me it was difficult to play in certain keys, like F sharp. Personally, I find C a hard key. It's very sterile to me. Somehow all the keys seem to have colors and textures. I love B and E and A and F sharp. I actually associate them with colors, but Jim Hall, the guitarist, does too, so I don't feel that ridiculous about it (Lyons, 1983: 173).
Keys that are regarded as difficult by many pianists offer no challenge to Marian McPartland, as she winds her pianistic way through the colors and textures of different vibrations:
I do know I see the different keys in colors - the key of D is daffodil yellow, B major is maroon, and B flat is blue. Different musicians spark you into different ideas, which is why I like to play with new people all the time. Especially the younger musicians. They're fearless (Balliett, 1986: 289).
Marian McPartland's ability to visualize these colors as she plays is a significant element in her approach, as she proved when improvising twenty-three spontaneous 'portraits' of different guests on Piano Jazz (McPartland, 1999).
Composer Alec Wilder exerted a powerful influence on Marian McPartland's musical development, and her compositional output was partly due to his urging. As a teenager in England, she had been impressed by hearing Alec Wilder's Octets on radio, and later arranged one of his pieces 'I'll Be Around' for her group. In 1973, Marian dedicated a recording session to the music of Alec Wilder, and this was released retrospectively on Concord Records in 2003 on the album Contrasts. It would seem that Marian McPartland's compositional and improvisational ideas are rooted in Alec Wilder's musical language, and elusive nuances of his style find their way into her expression of music.
It is illuminating to compare some of Wilder's most favored compositional techniques with what has emerged from the analyses of Marian McPartland's compositions:
Although his works are not atonal, occasionally the tonal orientation is blurred or difficult to detect because of the great amount of chromaticism which permeates his works. Wilder employs scales which are unpredictable combinations of whole and half steps. He uses no key signatures, and frequently ends movements a half or whole step away from the original tonal center. His modulations and chord progressions are, for the most part, unconventional. Occasionally he uses a circle of fifths progression, but it is more the rule for him to chromatically shift harmonies and free movement between sharps and flats.
Wilder's music is essentially triadic, and he frequently employs seventh, ninth and eleventh chords as well as added seconds and sixths. This harmonic aspect is above all others the element which gives his music its distinct flavor (Roberts, 1988).
Most of Wilder's compositions are derived from short themes and motivic fragments which are repeated in a variety of ways throughout his pieces.
That Marian McPartland, consciously or unconsciously, drew upon elements that attracted her to Alec Wilder's music is undeniable, and just as his compositions moved away from the conventional, her style departs from the mainstream. Wilder's uniquely personal style of composition is classed somewhere between classical music and popular music, and Marian McPartland was also as influenced by European music (especially the music of Debussy and Ravel) as she was by jazz sounds. Her interpretations are constantly changing, and contain a kaleidoscope of moods.
From this survey of critical opinion, it has been found that words like 'elegance' and 'lyricism' and 'harmonic subtlety' have dripped from the pens of reviewers over the years. There is no doubt that Marian McPartland prefers elegance over aggression, and lyricism over percussiveness, and her harmonic subtlety has led to her being grouped with stylists like Shearing and Evans:
George Shearing, Marian McPartland and Bill Evans continued to expand the non-bluesy side of jazz (though each was capable of belting out the earthiest blues), paying particular attention to every conceivable permutation of the ii-V7-I progression and writing tunes with complex chord changes (Salmon, 1999: 53).
Undoubtedly, the spirit of Alec Wilder infuses Marian McPartland's excursions into jazz, as she hovers over each theme exploring unexpected corners and colors, and delighting in discovering something new. Over the years, Marian McPartland has expanded, smoothed, balanced and refined all aspects of her artistry, remaining at the top of her game playing richly harmonic lines with a distinctive and rare blend of elegance and subtlety (Daniels, 2003).
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Hentoff, N. (2004) American Music Is, Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press Inc
McPartland, M. (2003) Marian McPartland’s Jazz World: All In Good Time, Urbana and Chicago: University Of Illinois Press
Hansson, C. (1999) Interview of James T. Maher, New York, November 4
DeMichael, D. (1966) 'Review Of Marian McPartland At The Apartment', Unknown source, April 25
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Hansson, C. (2004) Interview of Dan Morgenstern, Director, Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University, Newark, New Jersey, January 28
Enstice, W. and Rubin, P. (1994) Jazz Spoken Here: Conversations With Twenty-Two Musicians, New York: Da Capo Press Inc
Friedwald, W. (2002) Stardust Melodies: A Biography Of Twelve Of America's Most Popular Songs, New York: Pantheon Books
Enstice, W. and Stockhouse, J. (2004) 'Interview With Marian McPartland', in Jazzwomen: Conversations With Twenty-One Musicians, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, pp. 230-251
Press Clipping, Unknown author, Unknown source, n.d.
McPartland, M. (1999) ‘So Much Of Bill…', in Salmon, J. ‘A Bold New Stride', Piano & Keyboard, no. 201, November/December, pp. 48-55
McPartland, M. (1978) Liner Notes to Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz With Guest Bill Evans, November 6
Zych, D. (1997) 'Marian McPartland: True Devotion', JazzTimes, vol. 27, no. 8, October, pp. 31-37
Brehm, B. (1974) 'McPartland: Woman In The Jazz World', The Chronicle, April 23
Chemerka, B. (1980) 'After 40 Years, Improvisation Is Still The Keynote For Jazz Pianist Marian McPartland', Jazz Interview, Unknown source
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McPartland, M. (1999) Liner Notes to Marian McPartland: Portraits, NPR Classics
Roberts, J. E. (1988) 'Alec Wilder (1907-1980) As Composer Of Piano Music: A Study Of Stylistic and Structural Aspects Of Five Piano Works,' Unpublished DMA Dissertation, University of Texas, Austin, Texas
Daniels, R. L. (2003) 'Marian McPartland - 85th Birthday Tribute', Available: http://www.variety.com [April 11, 2003]