by Mel Fenson

One of Jazz’s most charming performers, Marian McPartland, the host of NPR's Piano Jazz, was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2007. Her NPR show has been its longest-running and most widely carried jazz program since 1979. She has showcased the world's top musicians on her popular show.

When Marian reached her 90th birthday on October 10, 2008, she and some of her closest friends took the stage at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, which overlooks New York City's Central Park, and celebrated!

Among the guests, who joined her on stage for an unforgettable night of jazz, were Wynton Marsalis, Norah Jones, Regina Carter and others. Marian opened the first set with a tune dedicated to her late husband, Jimmy McPartland, a famous Chicago jazz cornetist. Marian had met him while on tour in Belgium, during WWII.

A natural musician from an early age, Marian taught herself Chopin waltzes on the piano, playing by ear, when she was only three years old. Her maiden name was Margaret Marian Turner. She was born in Windsor, England in 1918. Marian received classical musical training at London's Guildhall School of Music. During World War II, she traveled throughout Europe entertaining Allied troops as part of a four-piano vaudeville act.

When Marian returned to the U.S. after the war, she performed with Jimmy’s dixieland quintet for a brief time, then parted to pursue her own musical path. She formed her own group - with Max Wayne on bass and Mel Zelnick on drums in 1952, which became known as the Hickory House Trio, after they landed a two-week stint at the Hickory House, a renowned bar and steak house in New York City. The trio’s two-week gig there turned into an eight-year stay. During that time, he group’s reputation became established and they attracted many other jazz musicians, such as Oscar Peterson, Benny Goodman, and Duke Ellington, who all came to perform with her.

Marian has recorded her music on a number of labels, including the Concord label, on which she recorded over 50 albums. Eventually, Marian founded Halcyon Records, which has produced albums for jazz artists such as pianists Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson, and Dave McKenna.

Asked to describe her musical style, Marian characterized herself as a, “middle of the road piano player - playing a little bebop, some far out chords and ballads.” She says, “I don’t really feel like I have a particular style like Errol Garner.” She, of course likes improvisation, “because that’s what jazz is - even on well known tunes, you’re improvising.”

Marian has composed a number of pop tunes and ballads. “Tony Bennett recorded one of my tunes,” she said, “and I wrote one called, In The Days of Our Love, that Peggy Lee did the lyric for and recorded. It’s a very pretty ballad. I guess ballads are my specialty.”

“Piano Jazz began years ago in 1979,” Marian recalled, “when I was about 65, an age when a lot of people were beginning to think about retiring. “At that time,” she said, “Alec Wilder, a great composer, had hosted a show for singers. He had a lot of talent like Margaret Whiting and Tony Bennett on his show, but it only lasted about a year. After that, NPR began looking for somebody else to host a similar show. It was actually Alec, who recommended me to the people at NPR, although he always denied that he had anything to do with it. I had no idea that the show was going to go on for so long. I thought, well this will be fun to do for a few months, and two years later we were still at it - and here we are 30 years later still doing it! We enjoy doing the show just as much now as we did years ago. I didn’t know it was going to last so long and be so successful - it just keeps going on and we hope it will never end.”

Marian said she likes to have a lot of young people on the show, “who demonstrate what jazz is.” She emphasized, “we’ve had quite a few students as guests, and we’ve had one 12-year-old kid, who came from Kurdistan, who is a wonderful pianist. He goes by the shortened name of Eldar and he has become very well known.”

“Our guest selection is made when my producer Shari Hutchinson and I talk over people we would like to have on the show, then we find out if they are available. We’ve had Billy Taylor, Tony Bennett, George Shearing and Oscar Petersen, among many others on the show. Right now I am dying to have Sonny Rollins and he has said he’ll do the show, but we just can’t nail him down to the date. Just about everybody, really, has been on!”

Marian’s radio show is taped at Manhattan Beach Recording Studios in Manhattan, which is equipped with state-of-the-art recording equipment and two baby grand pianos, on which she performs with her guests. After a recording session, the tapes are sent to Columbia, South Carolina, where Marian’s producer and staff edit them before sending them to NPR.

Marian said that her show is not aired every week. To find out when her shows will be aired in your area, check the NPR broadcast schedule online. During the summer months previous shows are repeated. “It’s great fun,” Marian said, “because we ask the audience to call in and let us know what shows they want to hear.”

Marian has been awarded many honors, including, a Grammy Trustee's Award for lifetime achievement, a George Foster Peabody Award, a Gracie Allen Award, given by American Women in Radio and Television, and the National Music Council's American Eagle Award. In further recognition of her talent, she has also received honorary academic degrees from Hamilton, Union, and Bates Colleges, Bowling Green University, and the University of South Carolina.

Marian has also authored a book, Marian McPartland's Jazz World: All in Good Time, which is a collection of jazz profiles of musicians and singers she has had on her show - published by the University of Illinois Press.

An ardent environmentalist, Marian McPartland collaborated with renowned jazz and film pianist/arranger Alan Broadbent, to create a symphonic tribute to one of the environmental movement's early heroes, Rachel Carson, whose book Silent Spring exposed the dangers of DDT and environmental carelessness. The symphony was the premiered on Nov. 15, 2007 with Marian accompanied by the University of South Carolina Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Dr. Donald Portnoy. Marian said she also recently played the piece, during a performance at Trinity Church in New York. She remarked that she is also currently composing another piece and commented, “ I don’t know what it is going to be called yet.”

Click on this link to view
The Making of a Portrait
of Rachel Carson

Marian said she currently has two NPR radio shows coming up in March, and a big party and performance is planned to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Piano Jazz in New York on April 14th this year.

For more information, visit Marian’s website at:

Watch Marian on

Special thanks to Marian's
Publicist, Brad Riesau
for his help.



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