Sunday, November 12, 2006

Marian McPartland’s Jazz World

Marian McPartland’s Jazz World: All in Good Time
7 CD set read by Marian McPartland
Blackstone Audio

Jazz fans are good listeners (not to mention often older and more affluent), so it has always seemed odd there have not been more jazz books available on audio. Blackstone deserves credit for seeing the potential for Marian McPartland’s Jazz World, and having her read it is a definite plus. In addition to being a top-flight improvising pianist and knowledgeable writer, McPartland is an accomplished radio broadcaster, so she is clearly comfortable recording in a studio environment.

Much of McPartland’s early jazz experiences came through interaction with Americans during wartime. As outlined in the introduction: “she joined ENSA, the British counterpart of the USO in World War II, switched to the USO after D-Day, entertained troops within the sound of artillery fire at the battlefront in France, toured Allied facilities with a troupe headed by Fred Astaire, performed at Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Forces, Versailles for General Eisenhower, and propitiously, met and married a famous American jazz trumpet player, Jimmy McPartland.” McPartland herself goes in to greater detail about her early experiences, but does so much more modestly and self-deprecatingly.

Most of Jazz World consists of portraits of jazz artists McPartland has known, or at least admires, but she does include some biographical pieces, particularly reminiscences of her first important home as a performer, the Hickory House. She describes an unlikely venue for piano trio: “It was more of a hearty sportsman-type steak and potatoes restaurant than a room that featured jazz. Yet somehow John Popkin, the owner, had achieved the impossible by making a success of both good food and good music, and we managed to establish a solid rapport with our audience.”

Several of the musicians she profiles had at one time worked in her trio in residence at the Hickory House. Joe Morello, for instance, would gain renown as a member of the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Jake Hanna, on the other hand, may not be as well known. However McPartland cannot help laughing as she narrates an episode when Hanna unexpectedly gave her his notice, and a Waring blender as a random parting gift.

While most of the artists featured are recognized jazz greats, like Mary Lou Williams, Benny Goodman, and Bill Evans, McPartland does make an interesting case on behalf of the jazz chops of the late comedian-musician Dudley Moore, who had played with Johnny Dankworth before finding fame as an actor. She quotes Robert Mann of the Julliard String Quartet on Moore’s musical proficiencies:

“In my view Dudley could easily be a third stream composer using jazz as well as classical elements. He’s also an excellent chamber music player. When I first brought him the Beethoven, he cite read it, and he has the technique to play it as well . . . but if he had to chose between classical and jazz he would chose jazz I have no doubt. And you know he actually got me to like Errol Garner.”

One figure who looms large in Jazz World is composer and songwriter Alec Wilder. It was Wilder who played an important role behind the scenes to convince NPR to produce Piano Jazz with McPartland hosting. He was a longtime friend who often composed tunes for her. With great affection, she says: “the word curmudgeon might have been invented for him.”

Also included on a bonus CD are some excerpts from Piano Jazz shows. Oscar Peterson takes great delight in showing off for McPartland, a host who can truly understand his technical feats, before performing a lovely take of Johny Mandel’s “Emily.” Bill Evans was an important later influence on McPartland, and they seem to have a real affinity. Listening to Evans explain his approach to solo improvising as he demonstrates on “The Touch of Your Lips” is fascinating—something music students should be grateful to have available.

Marian McPartland is both jazz and class personified for scores of listeners. To have her available on audio narrating her insights on the giants of jazz is a listening pleasure. One hopes to see more jazz audio books, but is happy to hear Marian McPartland in any format.