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August 21, 2013 at 12:45 PM

Writing the book on Marian McPartland: the woman I got to know

Marian McPartland smiles while playing the piano during a celebration of her 90th birthday in New York. McPartland, 95, the legendary jazz pianist and host of the National Public Radio show "Piano Jazz," died of natural causes Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013 at her Port Washington home on Long Island. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Marian McPartland smiles while playing the piano in 2008, during a celebration of her 90th birthday in New York. McPartland, 95, the legendary jazz pianist and host of the National Public Radio show “Piano Jazz,” died of natural causes Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013 at her Port Washington home on Long Island. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)


Editor’s Note: Marian McPartland died Tuesday of natural causes, at her home in Port Washington, NY. She was 95. Last year, Seattle Times jazz critic Paul de Barros published a biography of the music legend entitled “Shall We Play That One Together?” Below he remembers the delicate process of gaining her trust, drawing her out and getting her to open up about her real story.

“Well, they may not like me,” said Marian McPartland tartly, after reading the enormous first draft of my biography of her, “but they’ll probably like the book.”

Marian was sitting in the kitchen of her cozy, split-level home in Port Washington, Long Island, which she uses as an ad hoc office. It was afternoon. Spread out before her on the laminate-topped table was an array of papers carefully separated into piles.  As always, the boom box on the counter, surrounded by stacks of CDS, was tuned to WBGO-FM, the Newark, New Jersey-based National Public Radio station in the New York area that carried her unique show, Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz, the longest-running arts program in the network’s history. Outside the kitchen’s bay window, sparrows and chickadees darted in and out of a birdhouse stocked with seed or swarmed around an enormous feeder raised by a pulley into one of sweet gums that camouflage her house from the Long Island Rail Road track that runs 300 yards away, across a greenbelt watershed.

I had been working with Marian for three years on her biography. Getting her to finally open up and tell her real story – not the sugarcoated one she had been telling the public all these years – had been a slow and mighty struggle. Seeing herself as I portrayed her – often in unflattering, but always, I hoped, respectful terms – had come as something of a shock. She was not altogether certain she liked it. On the other hand, she also knew I had been right about one thing all along ­– that the truth, warts and all, makes for a much better story than a varnished version. In her own oblique and witty way, after much resistance, Marian finally seemed to be admitting that this was so.

Along with Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong and Dave Brubeck, McPartland is one of a dozen or so jazz musicians whose name is familiar to a good swatch of the American public. And if people don’t know her name, they most certainly know that voice, broadcast for 34 years over more than 200 stations, with its diction-perfect English and genteel, inquisitive interviews. Called by none other than Brubeck himself “one of the top three pianists in jazz,” McPartland has been honored with a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement and entertained two presidents and nine justices of the Supreme Court. How a timid young girl learning classical piano in a London suburb in the 1920s wound up being the most important spokesperson for American jazz seemed like a story that ought to be told.

No one agreed with that more than Marian. An excellent writer, she had been trying to tell her story for almost forty years, but had gone through several biographers. When Marian’s publicist approached me in 2005 about taking on the project, I knew she had recently worked briefly with another writer who was a good friend of mine. I was intrigued. Having worked most of my life as an advocate for jazz, I looked up to her as the person who stood at the very pinnacle of that endeavor. But I confess I was also wary. What was the problem? Why couldn’t Marian get this book done? A New York literary agent warned me that Marian would never really “give it up,” she was too accustomed to being in control of her own story.

Frankly, I wasn’t encouraged by our first meeting, which took place in January, 2006, in Port Washington, the upscale suburb on the north shore of Long Island where Marian lives. Over lunch at her favorite fish restaurant on Main Street, I asked her which jazz biographies she thought were really good. When she answered Duke Ellington’s Music Is My Mistress, my heart sank. Of all jazz autobiographies, Duke’s is possibly the most opaque. Nevertheless, when we got back to Marian’s house and sat down at the kitchen table – a spot I would come to know well – I agreed to take on the project.

“When do we start?” she asked.

Over the next six years, I would become all too familiar with this kind of eagerness – not to say impatience. Marian didn’t want to hear about book proposals, agents, publishers, advances – she just wanted to get going.  Now . She was 87 years old, she said. “I need to get this done.”

Over the next few months, in the interest of writing a book proposal, I read everything about her I could easily get my hands on. A lot of the writing followed a familiar trajectory. She was a woman who, being white, female and British, had overcome many obstacles. There didn’t seem to be any reason to dispute that story line, yet there also seemed to be another narrative lurking behind it. The more I read, the more I suspected Marian had gone through some kind of transformation during the 1960s, that she had been one kind of person before that tumultuous era and quite another afterward, and that this had set the stage for her eventual flowering in 1978, when she started working on her radio show. What had happened? In her interview with the Smithsonian Institution Oral History Project, she mentioned in passing that she had undergone psychoanalysis in 1963, after being fired by Benny Goodman, something that had deeply upset her equilibrium. During that period, she had also divorced her husband of 23 years, the legendary Chicago jazz cornetist Jimmy McPartland. Was there a connection? It seemed to me that this might be the key I was looking for.

In May, I came back to Port Washington and we taped a long interview in the kitchen. I cut to the chase. Had she “reinvented herself” somehow in the 1960s? Did analysis have something to do with it? What had happened to her during that period? I quickly discovered two of Marian’s salient qualities: her profound distaste for making global generalizations about anything and her deep personal reserve.

“This is making me very nervous,” she said, changing the subject to her work in the schools, something she is quite proud of. I suggested we take a break. Gosia Gil, Marian’s housekeeper, made tea. When I started the machine again, I took a different tack. Still no go. “If I ever talk to anybody about this, it’s usually kind of peripheral,” she said. “This isn’t the kind of thing you want in the book is it?”But of course it was exactly what I wanted in the book!

That summer, Marian came out to Seattle to play Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley. We taped another long interview, this time concentrating on her wartime romance with Jimmy, another obvious turning point in her life. She was much more comfortable talking about that and it served well enough as the substance of a book proposal. But I knew there was much more to the story and to get it right, eventually I would need to gain her trust.

Fast forward to Port Washington, summer of 2008. Michael Flamini, St. Martin’s Press editor and longtime Piano Jazz fan, has enthusiastically embraced my proposal for a biography of Marian. She and I have agreed on a modus operandi: She will open up her vast home archive – sixteen file drawers of reviews, magazine articles, photographs and concert programs – plus a “music room” and garage full of recordings and other material. As I work in the archive, we will tape more interviews. We agree the book will not be an “as-told-to” tale, but rather a third party narrative. She will have the option of reading the manuscript to check for factual errors, but the “final cut” will be mine. She seems uneasy ­– even sends our agreement to her lawyer – but she agrees.

Marian and her household made me feel immediately at home. Her friend Joellyn Ausanka, who transcribed the interviews Marian did for previous book projects, gathered all the old transcripts and Marian presented them to me in two large cardboard boxes. Marian’s weekend secretary, Nancy Christiansen, brought over a folding table and chair and Gosia set them up as a temporary desk in the adjacent den, a bright, airy, wood-paneled space a few steps down from the kitchen, with its own deck, where a fat red cardinal would often perch on the railing. The whirring of a fax machine, which stood next to the stereo console, complete with turntable and reel-to-reel tape recorder, added a frequent counterpoint to the chirping of the birds outside. This was where Jimmy had spent his last years. A few more steps down from the den was the archive room, with its looming file cabinets and shelves of cassette tapes and DVDs going up to the ceiling.

Marian greeted me every morning around 10, her hair, clothes and makeup perfectly in place. She kept two round makeup mirrors and a cache of cosmetics on the counter below the window, where there was usually a vase full of fresh flowers, as well; she was never less than immaculate, though her footwear of choice was always a pair of Keds. I soon fell into a pleasant rhythm of reading and note-taking in the den, occasionally coming up to the kitchen to ask questions over tea, then, every other day or so, we would tape a formal interview. The material in the boxes was a gold mine, particularly the papers dealing with her childhood years in England, since a lot of that era had long faded from her memory.

On the radio, Marian is self-deprecating, gracious and genteel, but in person she could be imperious, demanding, highly critical – sometimes even derisive and mean – and certainly not shy about sharing what was on her mind. Her conversational style was combative. If she didn’t have a good answer, she would offer a clever quip instead, or answer questions with questions. She was particularly vague about dates – a biographer’s nightmare – and when I would press her, she would argue, “Does it really matter?” Or if she didn’t know a precise date, she would sometimes just make one up. In published interviews, she had variously said she moved to New York in 1949, 1950 and 1951. I explained that writing a biography without dates was like playing a tune without the chord changes. “It’s the map, Marian, the timeline is the map.” But she honestly didn’t care. “I never knew when I did all these things I would be required to remember them,” she complained sarcastically.

Marian also had the habit of correcting my pronunciation. “It’s Dee-lius,” she jeered, when I first mistakenly called her favorite composer “Dell-ioos,” After two weeks of such browbeating, I was so frustrated I was ready to abandon the project altogether and fly home. Things came to a head over an archived blue aerogram that had been solicited by a previous biographer from one of Marian’s high school classmates, Peg Dowling, in which she reminisced about their days at Stratford House School for Girls, outside London. In a reference to what sounded like their gym costumes, Dowling had written a word that looked like “jibbah,” though I couldn’t be sure from the handwriting, so I took it upstairs to the kitchen for an explanation.

Marian pored over the letter, then looked me squarely in the eye and said testily, “What do you hope to get from this?”

“Detail is the life of prose,” I answered. “The more concrete details I have about your life, the more fun this book is going to be for readers. Do you think it says ‘jibbah’? What’s a jibbah?”

Marian went back to the letter.

“I cahrnt see why this is important,” she argued, now clearly annoyed, perhaps because she, too, couldn’t remember what a “jibbah” was (it turned out to be an Indian word for a loose cotton garment). “If you want my opinion, I don’t think it’s all that important.”

“Well I don’t want your opinion, Marian,” I said, now also annoyed myself. “I want your help. And since I’m writing this book, it’s going to have to be me who decides if something is important. So when you’re ready to talk about it, let me know. In the meantime, I’m going back down to the den.”

That night, I worried if I had been wrong to confront her. Was this how the other book attempts had foundered? Had all the other writers simply left, out of frustration? The next day, during an afternoon lull when Gosia was straightening up in the den, I asked, “Did I make a fatal mistake yesterday in the kitchen?”

“Oh, no, Paul,” Gosia said in a Polish accent, pronouncing each word in evenly spaced syllables. “Mrs. Mc-Part-land. If you don’t put up the stop sign, she runs right over you.”

While I was working on the book that summer, I stayed with a friend who lived close by. Six days a week, I came to the house, usually staying till five o’clock. When that hour arrived, Marian would say, just as she did at the end of her radio show, “I hate to say this, but…” then gently suggest it was time for me to leave. One afternoon, we were sitting in the den after a long interview and as I pulled on my pack, Marian suddenly said rather caustically, “So what do you do when you get back to Kathy’s every night, just forget about all this?”

I was stunned. I had just borrowed two more of Marian’s early vinyl records and had carefully slipped them into my backpack. Far from “forgetting” about the project every night, I usually spent the whole evening listening to her records, albums I knew I might spend weeks if not months searching for later if I didn’t listen to them now.

“Can’t you see I just borrowed two more of your albums to listen to tonight?” I answered.

“Oh, yes, I do see that, now that you mention it.”

Marian had a way of pre-empting criticism, by interjecting it herself, in advance, like a vaccine. Her mother, for example, had been extremely critical of others, she said, and Marian confessed she was afraid she took after her. After she said it, it was hard to take her to task. She owned the territory. But as I had with the “jibbah” incident, I screwed up my courage once again.

“You know how you said your mother was really critical? Well, you’re just about the most critical person I’ve ever met. It’s kind of hard to work with you. I’m really putting my all into this project. Why would you say such a thing?”

Marian looked genuinely puzzled for a minute, then she did something I can only remember her doing once the whole time I worked with her. She apologized.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ll try to be more aware of that.”

Looking back, I think that was the turning point. We never became friends – I think we both knew that would be dangerous and even undesirable, if we were to maintain a professional relationship – but I do feel we arrived at a sort of mutual respect. Or at least I hope so. For Marian, getting to that point apparently involved issuing a series of tests. She was not a trusting person, nor a warm one. But given the success she’d had in a field dominated by men, that should have come as no surprise. She had not gotten where she was by being soft, cute and cuddly. She did it by being focused, fearless, determined and shrewd – not to mention being very, very good.

Having established what I felt was a stronger footing, I began to draw Marian out, to try to convince her that no one wanted to read a story in which the main character had no vulnerabilities. It was boring. (Even her good friend, the great jazz singer Helen Merrill, had told Marian, “Your books are not interesting if you’re just talking about having a cup of tea. What are you trying to hide?”) But it was tough for Marian to let go. As that literary agent had said, she was used to being in control of her own story. She was used to being in control, period. Back in the ’70s, when she had been working on a biography with her friend Jim Maher – an elegant writer and scholar who had helped their mutual friend Alec Wilder, the composer, write his masterpiece, American Popular Song – Marian had revealed a good deal. But going back over Joellyn’s transcripts, she had balked.

“Who decides what’s interesting and what isn’t?” she wrote in her journal. “What sounds good on tape doesn’t necessarily look good.”

Indeed. But ever so gradually, she relented, and I began to piece together the narrative I had suspected was lurking behind the “official” story she’d been telling all these years. One of the first orders of business was to sort out her very complicated marriage and love life. When I first asked her about her long, ten-year affair with her drummer, Joe Morello, Marian appeared to be surprised.

“How do you know about that?” she asked.

I laughed.

“Well it’s right here in all these papers you’ve given me to look through,” I said, referring the interviews in the boxes. “Why did you give me this stuff if you don’t want to talk about it?”

“I don’t know,” she said.

“I’m trying to figure out who you are, Marian.”

“Well, when you find out, let me know,” she quipped.

Then she added, “But by then it won’t do any good, because you’ll have already made up your mind.”

When I left Long Island at the end of that summer, I felt I had not really solved the riddle of who Marian was. But the following January, when I returned to Port Washington, I knew something important had changed. For starters, a whole new box of material had suddenly appeared, papers Marian said she had “forgotten” before. There were even priceless letters she had written home to her family during the war. Marian was still her same salty self, but now, my nosy questions didn’t seem to bother her so much. She was less hesitant, less argumentative. Clearly, over the past four months, she had thought about the project and had decided, for whatever reason, that letting the world see her dark side would only make the light side look that much brighter and more interesting.

“What the hell,” she said at the kitchen table one afternoon, when the conversation turned to Jimmy. “I decided I’m going to let it all hang out.”

All these years, she had not only been protecting her own privacy by refusing to talk about Joe, she had been protecting Jimmy, too, taking on a role as a sort of curator of his memory and legacy. It was a sweet gesture, but it involved keeping alive a very false picture. Despite joining AA, Jimmy had been a chronic alcoholic most of his life. It wasn’t until his daughter committed suicide in 1968 – a tragedy Marian also helped Jimmy hide for years – that he finally quit drinking. And Marian’s affair with Joe had, in effect, ended a marriage that had gone stale years before. That’s what the psychoanalysis in 1963 had really been about – not, as she had repeatedly told the press, getting fired by Benny Goodman, though it was a cute story and the Goodman incident – not to mention the assassination of President Kennedy, which happened the same week – had precipitated her breakdown. In fact, Marian had spent the years between 1963 and 1967, an era when the world seemed to turn upside down and inside out, trying to sort out how – as a woman, as a musician, and as a human being who regarded herself as fair and honest – she could put an end to her long affair with Morello (which she did first) and then leave Jimmy, the man who had so generously shepherded her into the world of jazz, introducing her to everyone from Louis Armstrong to Dizzy Gillespie, but also, now, the man who seemed to be holding her back from realizing herself to the fullest extent.

Marian’s 1967 divorce from Jimmy was by all accounts a very unusual arrangement ­– “the divorce was a failure,” she often joked – in that the couple never really split up. Though they lived in separate houses, they spent every evening together when they were not on the road. At one point, they even moved back in with each other. But everything we know about Marian McPartland today – her radio show, her series of albums on Concord Jazz, her prescience about the importance of  jazz education and, perhaps most important of all, her powerful public advocacy for jazz, happened after her divorce. Because of her fierce loyalty to Jimmy, because of the status of women at the time, because of her background in England – because, because, because – there are so many factors one tries to unpuzzle in writing another person’s life – Marian found this narrative difficult to unfold.

Marian told her story one way. I told it another. Someone else may find a different, and better, way. But this is the story I sensed was true. I am so grateful she agreed to share the details that allowed me to piece it together. We live in an era when the public thinks it has the right to know the most intimate specifics about celebrities. We don’t. It is a privilege to be let inside. But I think Marian made the right choice. Her perseverance, high-mindedness and loyalty are inspirational, to say nothing of her passion and artistry. I admire her courage. And contrary to what she said after first reading the manuscript, I’m confident that after reading it, people will still like her very much.

(Note: This post was updated by the author Thursday, Aug. 22.)




Comments | Topics: Marian McPartland, NPR


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