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Jazz Great McPartland Mourned at Cornish

Jazz Great McPartland Mourned at Cornish

: Courtesy, NPR. Photo by RJ Capak.

Jazz pianist, educator and NPR broadcasting star, Marian McPartland inspired generations of musicians.

Everyone at Cornish College of the Arts was saddened to learn today of the passing of the great jazz pianist, Marian McPartland. She died of natural causes at her home yesterday evening, August 20, 2013, at the age of 95. McPartland was a pioneer for women in jazz, and several generations of Cornish-educated pianists, such as Myra Melford and Dawn Clement have benefitted from her work. The Cornish connection is strong, as McPartland’s authorized biographer is music faculty member and jazz critic Paul de Barros.

Paul de Barros published Marian’s authorized biography last year, Shall We Play That One Together?: The Life and Art of Jazz Piano Legend Marian McPartland. It is a project that de Barros was working on for the last five years and one that necessitated his moving to New York for two years so he could spend time with Marian in her final years.

“In terms of being a jazz history teacher, writing about Marian McPartland was this huge opportunity,” says de Barros. “Here you have this woman who, when you take her in combination with her husband, Jimmy McPartland, covered practically the whole history of jazz.”

“What’s interesting to me about Marian, especially from the point of view of being a teacher at Cornish,” continues de Barros, “is that here you have this person who becomes a consummate, individualistic player with her own sound and her own approach to harmony, and who wrote, not inconsequentially, some pretty good tunes, like Twilight World. And she becomes the most visible advocate for the music in America. … She makes this program into something nobody has ever done before which is an interview program but also a performance program.  … Yes, she’s a teacher and a perennial student.  In the context of an educational institution, she’s like the consummate figure. She’s all of it. She’s sitting in class learning and she’s teaching at the same time.” De Barros wrote a remarkable piece in the Seattle Times on working with McPartland on her biography that was reprinted on August 21.

Like all great artists, the real connection is the inspiration to all who heard her. What’s added to her musical example is the role she played in education, teaching every student of jazz in America, connected to a school or not, through her National Public Radio show, Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz.

“Marian McPartland was one of the truly great musicians of our time,” says Dr. Nancy Uscher, president of Cornish, who holds degrees in music from Eastman, SUNY Stony Brook and NYU. “She was an outstanding jazz pianist and musical personality. Her music sparkled with joy and commitment to her art. She was always generous in working with young musicians and through her recordings, she will continue to inspire future generations.”

Kent Devereaux, chair of the music department, called McPartland “one of the pioneers of women in jazz,” and said that the jazz pianists who have come through Cornish have benefitted from her work and her example. Two prominent musicians who studied at Cornish agree with him.

Myra Melford, who studied piano at Cornish in 1980-81, is recognized as one of the top jazz pianists in the country. “I was very saddened to hear of Marian McPartland’s passing yesterday,” writes Melford, “but there’s much to celebrate, what an incredibly bright star she was.”

Melford continues. “When I first got interested in pursuing jazz piano in college, there weren’t very many women doing what she did. She and Mary Lou Williams were both hugely inspirational to me.  Later, after I’d moved to New York City, I had the great honor of being on her show, Piano Jazz, and getting to perform with her was great fun.  She was so open-minded and enthusiastic about all kinds of approaches to playing jazz, and was able to connect with so many different musicians over the many years that she did that show.  Her spirit of inclusiveness in the jazz world was and is so vitally important.”

Melford’s thoughts are echoed by Dawn Clement (MU ’00), a jazz pianist just breaking out onto the national scene. Clement writes of McPartland, “Her show was a highlight for me every time and I always felt like I learned something from not only her guests but also from her in the way she interviewed people and articulated directing and questioning.”

“I’ve got a couple of sweet gems of hers that have been inspirational especially her tune choice,” continues Clement. “Love her playing and especially love that she didn’t let age or style hold her back or slow her down. Paul de Barros introduced me to her at Jazz Alley a few years ago and I feel so fortunate to have gotten to hear her live and shake such a sweet hand. One of the founding mothers in jazz, I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be anywhere without the likes of Marian McPartland and Mary Lou Williams, paving the way for all of us women.”


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