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In a world dominated by men, Marian McPartland distinguished herself as one of the greatest jazz pianists of her age
Born in the UK as Margaret Marian Turner, Marian McPartland learned to play classical piano, but was passionately attracted to the rhythms of American jazz. Entertaining troops in WWII Europe, she met her future husband, Jimmy McPartland, a cocky young trumpet player who was the protege of the great Bix ...
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In a world dominated by men, Marian McPartland distinguished herself as one of the greatest jazz pianists of her age
Born in the UK as Margaret Marian Turner, Marian McPartland learned to play classical piano, but was passionately attracted to the rhythms of American jazz. Entertaining troops in WWII Europe, she met her future husband, Jimmy McPartland, a cocky young trumpet player who was the protege of the great Bix Beiderbecke. They were married and, together, they made jazz history. At first, Marian played second fiddle to Jimmy in Chicago, but when they moved to New York, Marian and her trio took up residence at the famous Hickory House where she thrilled the crowds from her perch on a stage in the middle of large oval bar. From there she went on to triumphs at places like the Montreaux Jazz Festival. Possibly, her greatest accomplishment was the creation of NPR's long-running show Piano Jazz.
More than the life story of one of our greatest artists, Shall We Play That One Together? by Paul de Barros chronicles an age when jazz was a vital art form. Just as inviting as Marian's signature question on Piano Jazz, Shall We Play That One Together? is an invitation to readers everywhere to listen to the score of a bygone age.
“The story of the distinguished female jazz pianist who devoted herself to her art and won popularity, the respect of her colleagues and just about every honor the profession bestows. There will not be a more richly detailed biography of McPartland… A splendid catalogue of McPartland’s achievements, although readers may stumble in the great tangle of detail.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Engrossing and illuminating… De Barros approaches McPartland's long, rich life as both a knowledgeable fan of her musical achievements and an evenhanded observer of her personal highs and lows…The overall portrait De Barros presents is that of an open-minded, openhearted artist who struggled over seemingly insurmountable circumstances, not the least being gender prejudice, to continue evolving, growing, giving back as much inspiration as she reaped. It is a story of jazz in the midst of its first — and one hopes, not its last — century.” —The Seattle Times
"Marian is a walking history book on jazz. I loved reading her anecdotes. I grew up listening to Jimmy McPartland. Their long and stormy life together is one of the great love stories in jazz. Paul de Barros does a terrific job bringing her story to life.”—Clint Eastwood
“Everything Marian McPartland plays is truly tasteful. Not once do you think to yourself, ‘Why did she do that?’ She is one of the truly great jazz artists. With an intelligence and wit worthy of McPartland herself, Paul de Barros has reached back into Marian's life to explain just how this remarkable woman came to be.”—Tony Bennett
“What Shall We Do with Her?”
ON THE MORNING OF JULY 23, 1944, Marian McPartland stood on the south coast of her native England, looking across the English Channel. Part of a USO unit sent to entertain troops on the front lines in France, she was wearing combat boots and a helmet. She had spent the last month learning to pitch a pup tent and cook with a mess kit, rehearsing with a variety act called Band Wagon, fronted by an American comedian named Don Rice. On her way, she had stopped by her parents’ home in Eastbourne to say good-bye and pick up the accordion her father had bought her years before, as she had been told there might not be pianos where she was headed. American troops had been flooding into England by the tens of thousands since early 1942, in preparation for the November assault on North Africa and then the continent itself. When the Americans arrived, a lot of British girls seemed to lose their minds. By the time the war was over, thousands had left home as war brides. Marian had met her first real beau in London, a handsome, dark-haired comedian and impressionist she’d worked with in a vaudeville outfit. They’d even lived together for a while in Camden Town, sharing a flat as well as the London stage. But David had shipped out to North Africa. Marian, like other young Brits, was smitten by American movie stars and swing musicians; she had even finagled a publicity photo of herself with Jimmy Cagney when he played for the USO.
The Normandy invasion originally had been planned for May but had been secretly postponed till June 6. On the evening of the assault, Marian had stayed up half the night, listening to thousands of planes passing overhead for hours and hours, a droning that seemed to go on forever. A month later, she found herself among the first entertainers assigned to bring good cheer and a few laughs to the men who survived those first few, bloody months. Twenty-six years old—an attractive brunette with a tall face, broad smile, and ready wit—she had been working as a professional pianist under the stage name Marian Page for six years, ever since dropping out of the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama to play piano in a novelty act led by Billy Mayerl, a hugely popular English entertainer. After the war started, she had joined the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA) but had switched to the American United Service Organizations (USO), where the pay—and the entertainers—were much better. Since 1940 she’d been barnstorming the provinces, entertaining soldiers in camps, mess halls, and vaudeville houses great and small.
But no experience in her background had prepared her for this moment. Born in 1918 near Windsor Castle and raised in a genteel, middle-class suburb in Kent, she had at first seemed destined for a career as a concert pianist. At seventeen, on the advice of an inspiring elocution teacher who had taken a special interest in her at Stratford House School for Girls, she had auditioned for the Guildhall in London. After three years, however, the lively beat of jazz and popular music had lured her away. Though Marian was by no means a jazz player yet, she had wide-ranging curiosity and a burning desire to learn.
As she looked across the Channel under the gray morning clouds, she wondered what lay ahead. The war was horrible, but surely there was something exciting there, too. She had never been out of England, so she had nothing to compare it with. But it somehow seemed so dull. Her parents were bound and determined to marry her off to a banker. Now that she’d seen life on the road, heard the applause, tasted the glamour—and, yes, felt the hard knocks and backstage boredom—she had found her path. She wasn’t sure why. And she wasn’t sure where it was leading her or what she might find. But as she stepped gingerly into the water and climbed aboard a small boat that would take her to France, somehow, she knew that making that crossing was something she needed to do. Little did she know that she was about to find her passion in life—and become a war bride herself.
Before that fateful morning, Marian’s world had been almost entirely circumscribed by a thirty-mile stretch of the river Thames, from Windsor to Woolwich. As the river winds down from Oxfordshire, it picks up steam below the hill from which Windsor Castle commands the countryside. North lie the fields of Eton and the tenements of Slough. Widening into a great urban river at London’s Victoria Embankment, it flows slowly past the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, becoming ever wider as its horseshoe turns meander beyond the Tower of London and are ornamented by the remains of the once vibrant industrial machinery of shipping, manufacturing, and the long shore, until, nine miles east, it reaches Woolwich, where Henry VIII established the Royal Arsenal in 1513. Just south of Woolwich is the leafy suburb of Bromley, once an important stagecoach stop on the road to Hastings. The river shortly thereafter flows into a great estuary before spilling its bounty of fresh water into the North Sea.
Marian’s story began in Slough, where she was born Margaret Marian Turner at home, at 41 Sussex Place, March 20, 1918, eight months before the conclusion of the Great War and the year in which Englishwomen first got the vote. Marian’s father, Frank Turner, a civil engineer, worked in management at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich, but with the war on, the arsenal was a dangerous place, exposed to aerial bombings, zeppelin flyovers, frequent accidents, and explosions. Because of that, it was probably decided that his wife, Janet, should bear her firstborn in Slough, across the river from Windsor.
Janet’s people, the Dysons, had an illustrious history in Windsor, both musical and political. In 1855, Marian’s great-grandfather Thomas Dyson had become a lay clerk—an adult singer—in the now world-renowned male choir at St. George’s Chapel, on the castle grounds. Ten years later, Thomas founded Dyson and Sons, pianoforte dealers, and set up shop at No. 10 Thames Street, across from the castle wall. Thomas was elected mayor of Windsor in 1890. For his improvements to the city—in particular, refurbishing a lovely promenade along the river—Dyson was honored with a pagoda-like memorial fountain of polished pink stone, which still stands at the corner of Goswell Road and Barry Avenue.
St. George’s provided on-site housing for choir members and their families in the Horseshoe Cloisters, a stunningly preserved, two-story Tudor structure just across from the cathedral, with classic diagonal beams and wattle-and-daub walls of a redbrick hue. Thomas Dyson and his wife, Jane, lived at No. 14 with their seven children: Thomas George, Charles Frederick, Margarette Clara, Albert Harry, Arthur Edward, George Henry, and Sarah Annie. Marian’s maternal grandmother was Sarah Annie (called Annie). Marian, who also went by her middle name, was probably named after her great-aunt Margarette. Thomas (the younger) and Charles Frederick (called Frederick) joined their father in the family piano business, as did young George. Frederick played cello in a local orchestra and for much of his life was connected with the nearby Eton College Musical Society. The rooms at No. 14 must have rung out with music daily, as Thomas and Frederick practiced their hymns, Frederick played cello, and Annie taught piano lessons.
Next door to the Dyson piano shop, on the posh commercial block that hugs the castle wall, at No. 9, stood Uncle (Albert) Harry’s jewelry shop, operated by him and his son Cyril. Embedded in the sidewalk in front of the store was a working clock with a thick glass cover. A sign out front read, “By Appointment to Her Majesty.” Among Cyril’s duties were to repair the royal clocks and clean the family jewels. As a little girl, Marian remembered being shunted into a back room with her sister, Joyce, when King George came looking for an eggcup. As if in a fairy tale, the king thought the cup too small, so he requested that someone fetch an egg to test it. He was eventually satisfied, as Marian and Joyce peeked out warily from behind the shop’s rear door.
Frederick, elected mayor in 1909, was knighted by King George two years later. As mayor, Frederick had just welcomed King George and Queen Mary back to Windsor after their coronation in London. As the royal procession marched down the High Street, the king descended from his carriage, put his sword on Frederick’s shoulder, and publicly proclaimed him a knight. Harry’s son, Cyril, also served as mayor and was knighted as well, in 1953. The Dyson line, then, boasted two knights and three mayors of Windsor.
“You can see how these associations might affect the family,” Marian told a magazine reporter. “A good deal of attention was paid to my schooling and manners, and there was no nonsense about it. After all, when there’s always the chance that your small child will go chasing her kitten and bump smack into the King of England.… I was quite a meek little nipper.”
Marian’s maternal grandmother Annie was born at the Cloisters in 1856 and in 1881 married John Payne, a banker from Wallingford, Oxfordshire, forty miles upriver. Seven years Annie’s senior, Payne took her to Tunbridge Wells, Kent, where in 1885 their first daughter, Janet, Marian’s mother, was born. John and Annie Payne eventually settled in Wantage, fifteen miles west of Wallingford, where Janet and her younger brother, Arthur, were raised. As a child, Janet contracted rheumatic fever, which left her with a weak heart. Not much else is known about her early life, but the Payne family seems to have been well-off, as Marian’s memories of family visits to Wantage feature a rather grand house with lawn tennis courts.
Janet was a beautiful woman, about five feet seven inches tall, with small features, brown eyes, and black hair, which she tied in a bun. She always wore long earrings, which Marian loved to try on as a little girl. Janet studied piano with her mother but does not seem to have considered a career in music. Sometime during her twenties, Janet met the man with whom she would spend the rest of her life—Frank Turner. The youngest of four children, Frank was born in 1882 in Enfield, Middlesex. The Turners were solid professional folk. Frank’s father, Henry J. Turner, was born in 1840 in Warminster, Wiltshire, and worked as a shorthand clerk; Frank’s mother came from Wellington, Shropshire, where she was born about 1842. Raised in Enfield, Frank studied engineering and went to work as an apprentice for the London North Eastern Railway in 1911. He then took a job at the Woolwich Arsenal, specializing in rifling, the spiral ridges inside gun barrels that spin a bullet (or larger projectile) to ensure that it fires straight and true. It was an auspicious career decision, for while Frank was by all reports a peace-loving, gentle man, sadly, the demands of two world wars would make the arsenal a secure employer for the rest of his life.
Frank was a handsome man, five feet ten and a half inches tall, with greenish brown eyes, black hair, and a stern, sometimes even solemn look. But he was quick to smile or even burst into song, and he had an easy sense of humor, which ran in the Turner family.
Frank and Janet married September 6, 1913, in Windsor Parish Church. It was a black-tie and top hat affair. Though Marian was born in Slough, by the time of her birth, Frank had found a house in Woolwich, at 63 Wrottesley Road. To an American, there is nothing particularly unfortunate about being born in a place called Slough, apart from the fact that it rhymes with “cow.” But in England, the town is a national symbol of faceless mediocrity, famously skewered in a 1937 poem by John Betjeman (“Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough!”) and more recently chosen as the setting for the British TV comedy The Office, adapted for American television. (The late comedian Steve Allen, original host of TV’s The Tonight Show, used to tease Marian by pronouncing it “sluff.”) This no doubt explains why Marian often told interviewers she was born in Windsor, then hastily moved the conversation to the Dyson lineage.
The object of Betjeman’s derision was conformist suburban sprawl, but the destruction it suggested might suddenly fall from the sky was symptomatic of how central a factor war—and the specter of war—was to Marian’s upbringing. The two world wars bookended her early life, and the nervous period between—which Britons call “the slump,” a severe depression that started earlier and lasted far longer than its American counterpart—was the backdrop. During this entire span, the Turner household income was derived from the manufacture of weapons. This helps put in perspective the clichéd, tea-and-crumpets reminiscences Marian often provided the American press about her early childhood. In fact, the grim backdrop of her upbringing was much less a fairy tale. The Turners lived just a few hundred yards from the Royal Arsenal, a living embodiment of William Blake’s dark vision of industrial hell, the “total war” engineered by the madness of the twentieth century. The arsenal was like a little city—1,285 acres along the river, with more than sixty-five thousand employees and forty-seven miles of private railway. One of Marian’s earliest childhood memories is of those trains in the night—not romantic, mythic trains in the American South, hooting on a hot summer evening, but something rather more frightening.
“The heavy chuff chuff of the engine, the train whistle sounding as close as if it were in the room,” she recalled. “These were slightly sinister to me. I sometimes dreamed about the train—that it was going right through the house—and then I woke to hear it in the distance.”
Marian’s first family home was modest, part of a long, institutional-looking row of attached, two-story brick houses, with white lintels and window frames, low brick walls, and chimneys with eight stacks each. In the spring of 1920, Frank moved the family up Shooter’s Hill, a strategic high point from which the military had traditionally protected not only the Arsenal and London, but the nearby suburbs of Chislehurst and Bromley, where the family eventually moved. For a while, the Turners lived at 219 Eglinton Road; a few months later, Frank found a nicer house at 15 Eglinton Hill. McPartland’s first vivid childhood memories are of that house, where she lived until she was six. The neighborhood afforded a panoramic view of London, the river Thames, the Arsenal, and the rather stately spire of the Woolwich Town Hall. After she moved to New York, Marian would accurately describe Woolwich as being “something like Astoria,” Queens—a dense, urban mixed-use neighborhood.
The house at Eglinton Hill was a typical upper-middle-class dwelling with a fireplace and marble mantel with a brass candlestick at either end and an oval brown clock in the middle that ticked loudly and chimed the hour. At night, eight gas jets covered with green wire shades hissed and flared in the drawing room. Oil paintings of the Dysons hung on the wall. In the basement, maids boiled sheets, linens, towels, and diapers in a great cement container with a fire that glowed through a grate underneath. Marian spent much of her time upstairs in the nursery, which looked out onto a small garden. In early spring, her father encouraged her to plant seeds, which she sprinkled with water with a child’s watering can, and later initiated Marian into the joys of weeding, cutting hedges, and tying up hollyhocks with raffia.
Marian spent many happy hours sitting on the back steps at Eglinton Hill, playing with woolly caterpillars, feeding them leaves from a lime tree in the front garden. In the early morning, when the flowers glistened, a dark ring would sometimes form in the grass. Her father told her it had been made by fairies dancing in the night. She remembered standing by the window in the winter when an occasional wet snow fell, nose pressed to the glass, watching the snow come down. She stood there for hours, daydreaming, and luxuriated in her fantasy world, which soon included the dream of music.
Marian’s mother often played the family upright, not with any special fanfare, but casually sitting down to play Chopin’s Waltz in A-flat or something by Grieg, while Marian’s father read the newspaper in the sitting room. When Marian was three years old, after hearing her mother play Chopin, she climbed onto the piano bench and picked out the notes by ear. A few years later, while visiting her uncle Harry Dyson, Marian sat down at Harry’s upright and had a transformational experience. This pale, thin girl with a serious, inward demeanor discovered that the melodies she heard in her head flowed easily from her mind down through her fingers to the black and white keys.
“It was like a vision,” she later remembered. “I wasn’t just toying with the keys. I could command them.”
McPartland had been born with perfect pitch—the ability to pick out any note she heard and play it, the way other people might identify a color or shape. As she played, she became enveloped in the sound, forgetting everything around her. After that day, the world of sound she found that afternoon would be her refuge, her solace, her companion—and eventually, her profession and lifelong obsession. At six years old, she had discovered the world she wanted to live in.
If anyone had told Marian’s mother her introverted little girl playing Chopin would one day become an American jazz icon, bristling with Manhattan bravado and the salty vernacular of the street, she probably would have scoffed—if not actually fainted. How Marian’s private world of the imagination survived—flourished, even—in a stultifying landscape for the most part indifferent and, often, actively hostile to it is a challenging question.
Though Janet still played the piano for pleasure, she managed the household as her vocation. She had plenty of help. Alice came in the morning, another maid in the afternoon, and when Marian’s sister, Joyce, was born in 1922, “Nurse Turner” was hired as well. Alice came to work in a blue coat and a blue straw hat with artificial cherries on it. After she arrived, she changed into a black dress, black shoes, and white frilly cap and apron. Marian took great pleasure in helping Alice with her chores, polishing silver, pressing handkerchiefs with a child-sized iron, and luxuriating in the fresh smell of wind-dried sheets. Marian also fondly recollected being held in her mother’s arms before bed as they recited the Charles Wesley prayer:
Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,
Look upon a little child;
Pity my simplicity,
Suffer me to come to Thee.
But despite this seeming idyll, many of Marian’s sharpest recollections of childhood were seasoned with a bittersweet sense of loss. A neighborhood boy trampled her caterpillar collection. When she was given a kitten, her mother took it away when Marian accidentally hugged it so hard it soiled her blouse. A beautiful doll sent by her uncle from China was stored away, with the explanation she was “too young” for it. Even her fondest childhood memories were notable for their solitariness. In her memoirs, there were few tales of games played happily with friends, but rather moments of sweet solitude—painting, writing stories, and playing the piano.
It seemed to Marian that just as she would become attached to one of the household help, her mother, impatient and hypercritical, would let the person go. Nurse Turner was sacked for taking Marian and her sister (still in a pram) to an “unsuitable” neighborhood. She was replaced by “Dunny”—Miss Dunston—whom Marian didn’t care for. One Miss Clayton—“Claytie”—played games with Marian until she was summarily terminated as well, after some other “bust-up” with Marian’s mother. Janet was critical of her children, too. Life was full of “Now, Margaret, sit up straight. You’ll get round-shouldered.” “Don’t dash into things!” “If you do that, Mummy won’t like you.” Or worse, “You’re pigheaded, just like your father!”
“Mummy did seem to find fault with everybody sooner or later,” Marian said.
Class lines were very real in Britain in those days, and Marian’s mother observed them strictly for her children. An erstwhile friend named Godfrey was nixed because he was “too rough.” An encounter with a Cockney boy at Marian’s first school, a Woolwich convent, led her mother to pull her out after a few weeks. Janet even referred to her brother Arthur as a “blue-collar type.”
“I really have few memories of Mummy when she wasn’t nagging me about something,” declared Marian. “She was a chronic complainer. And yet her opinion, her judgment about things, was very important to me. Even now, after all these years, I think my decision making (or sometimes lack of it!) is affected by the strong hold she had on my feelings and my behavior. My parents, both of them, seem pretty opinionated to me now. At the time, of course, I believed everything I was told and pretty much did everything I was told.”
Marian wrote an unusual story as a child, “It’s Best to Be Good,” which spoke with sterling clarity to this early internalization of parental authority. In language that would make a Freudian’s day, “Little Doris” snuck out of the house on a rainy day when Mummy was out and was kidnapped by ominous “balloon men” with rubbery limbs who, Alice in Wonderland–style, shrank her so she could fit into their flying balloon. When the food they gave her burst in her mouth, and their ship suffered the same fate, Little Doris woke up to find her mother standing by. “You naughty girl! I said you were to stay in,” she scolded. “So now,” wrote Marian, “Doris thinks it best to do what she’s told.”
Marian said she learned early on that to be “liked” was important, and in order to achieve that, one must be “nice.” When her mother brought back a dark green dress for her from one of her shopping trips to the John Barker department store in London, Marian didn’t like it but dutifully put it on and didn’t protest.
“She was overstrict and you had rows over things like you breaking her umbrella and [your] being ‘critical,’” remembered Marian’s sister, Joyce. “Being critical was not agreeing with Mother.… She admired your musical ability and at the same time seemed unable to come to terms with you as a person.”
Marian’s sister, Joyce Mabel Kathleen Turner, was born when Marian was four. Joyce was cheerful, had big eyes, straight hair, and a wide mouth, and from the outset Marian felt—in classic firstborn fashion—that Joyce was not only prettier, but the favored one. Her mother reinforced those feelings. Looking in the mirror, Marian saw not a little girl who was rather cute in a shy way, but a long, serious face, penetrating eyes, a prominent nose, and a big forehead. Joyce got sick a lot in the winter with bronchitis, and it seemed to Marian that her mother took an inordinate amount of time and pleasure in caring for her.
“They never heated the house,” said Marian. “You could see your breath in the bedroom when you got up in the morning, it was so bloody cold. All you wanted to do was throw on your clothes and tear out of there. I was the big ox that never got sick.”
Being ill carried a psychological premium in the Turner household. A diary Marian’s mother kept in her last years revealed an obsessive interest in the health of family members, with every cough, sore throat, ache, and pain monitored with fretful detail. Janet’s chronic complaining (later compounded by an actual, debilitating handicap) only amplified this obsession. If Marian got a cold, her father would bring her warm milk spiked with rum.
“I was Daddy’s girl,” said Marian. “If he had one.”
McPartland’s memories of her father—in contrast with those of her mother—were glowingly positive. In the morning, he would come into her room wearing a frayed green dressing gown and roust her out of bed, pounding on the bottom end of the mattress, saying, “Jump about! Jump about! Time to get up, old chap!”
“I’ve often wondered if it was a psychological slip with him, that he really wanted a son,” said Marian. “He would always call me ‘old chap.’”
Before he dashed off to work, Frank Turner would have two boiled eggs and toast. Marian by this time would already have finished her egg, and she would turn the empty shell upside down and put it in her daddy’s eggcup. He would solemnly cut off the top, always pretending to be surprised to discover there was no egg inside.
Frank was not musical, but he liked to sing heartily in church and could often be heard humming “like a bumblebee” as he puttered away at woodworking projects around the house. He would drift about singing the nineteenth-century Irish ballad “I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls,” then stop himself short, pretending to be startled, and say, “And then I woke up and found out I didn’t!” The line always got a laugh. Sometimes when he was singing, according to Joyce, “Mummy would make some semicrushing remark that wiped the song from his lips.” Frank loved to take long, brisk walks, and he often took Marian along, as well as the family’s wire-haired terrier, Tim.
Good-natured and lighthearted as he was, Frank Turner held to a rigid Victorian work ethic. He brought work home with him and constantly seemed to be on the telephone or writing letters. His oft repeated motto was, “Fill the unforgiving minute,” and it made a deep impression on Marian. He told her that while studying for his engineering exams, he read by candlelight till he fell asleep, waking up hours later to find the candle burned down to the end. An earthenware jug in the pantry sported another Protestant nostrum: “Success comes not by wishing but hard work bravely done.” When Marian undertook the task of writing a letter—or an obligatory thank-you note for, say, the (unwanted) Dickens novel she received annually from her mother’s relatives in Wantage (though she did make it all the way through Oliver Twist)—her father read every line. If she had crossed out a word or had forgotten to cross a “t” or dot an “i,” he made her write the whole thing out all over again.
Beyond such fastidiousness, Marian’s parents instilled in her many qualities typically associated with an old-fashioned English upbringing: a knack for keen, conversational wit and the cutting bon mot; a sentimental love of nature and animals; the proverbial British stiff upper lip” in the face of adversity; an unflappable, understated skepticism about human nature; an appetite for hard work and good deeds; and a species of personal reserve that is particularly British—one that recoils from expressive intimacy but takes delight in gracious collegiality.
The Turner family was Church of England, but not deeply religious. If Marian asked to leave church before the sermon, her father usually said yes. They did not say grace before dinner, and religious icons had no place in the household. Church was simply something one did on Sunday but did not make a lot of fuss about. Marian despised Sunday school, where the teacher struck her as a dull “spinster.”
In 1924, despite massive layoffs at the Arsenal, Frank Turner bought a stately, three-story detached house with front and back garden at 34 Cambridge Road, in the suburb of Bromley, about nine miles south of Woolwich, in Kent. Bromley then boasted a population of about thirty-five thousand and still had areas of open countryside. Most of the streets were unpaved, and milk and ice were delivered by horse and wagon. (The Turner family never owned a car.) Its two prominent historical features were the imposing brick buildings of Bromley and Sheppard Colleges in the old town center and a six-hundred-acre, eighteenth-century estate, Sundridge Park, whose handsome, pillared manor still serves as a hotel and rental for weddings and meetings. Marian’s home on Cambridge Road lay a few blocks from the gates of Sundridge Park and just around the corner from Plaistow Grove, where another popular British entertainer, David Bowie, also spent part of his childhood.
The shops of the High Street—the British equivalent of Main Street—were close by. An East Indian family lived at the back of the large garden, which had a miniature castle and moat. Marian and Joyce were warned not to “mix,” but they climbed a tree at the bottom of the garden anyway, and the neighbor kids climbed a tree on their side, and they all sat in the trees and talked across the fence. Out front stood a silver birch tree.
Shortly after the Turners moved to Cambridge Road, Marian’s grandmother Annie moved in. She seems to have been in need of income. At one point she tried to sell some royal knickknacks from her Windsor days, including an umbrella that had belonged to King George IV. Marian remembered Annie as a “tyrannical” woman, imperious and critical, who wore long skirts and black shoes and kept a barrel of stout in the cellar. She would occasionally go downstairs to draw off a jugful to drink with lunch. The image of the demanding Dyson dowager living in the same household with her malcontented, critical daughter, Janet, and a soon-to-be-resistant granddaughter, Marian, suggested a painful level of domestic tension. The Turner household was not an expressive one, so that tension necessarily found its outlet in sarcasm, one-upmanship, passive resistance, and—at least for Marian—a determination to break free at the first possible opportunity. Annie lived with the Turners for just a couple of years, then moved to a nursing home. Marian remembered her grandmother waving to her in the morning as she walked past the home on the way to school. Annie died in 1929, an event that does not seem to have had much of an emotional impact on her granddaughter.
Outside the home, Marian found more nurturing influences, notably Miss Dorinda Hammond of Miss Hammond’s School for Young Children, which Marian entered when she was six. Miss Hammond’s was situated in a modest, one-story frame building on Minster Road and directed by two “spinsters,” Miss Hammond, principal, and her stout assistant, Miss Agatha Cicely Grantham Nicholson, who shared a home at No. 5 Longfield. Miss Hammond and Miss Nicholson occasionally came to the house to play whist with Marian’s mother. It was at Miss Hammond’s that Marian first began picking out tunes on the piano for her schoolmates. The school was coed, and a 1926 class picture showed the boys in short ties and shirts and the girls in plain frocks. Marian, with a “fringe” of hair (bangs) her mother insisted she comb over her prominent forehead, gazed at the camera with a rather distant yet challenging look.
Opposite the school was a small footbridge over the railway and a path that led to Sundridge Park and Elmstead Woods, where Miss Hammond took her young charges on nature walks.
“I think that was quite an important part of my life,” Marian concluded, looking back. “She made us listen to the birds and the wind and the water lapping in the brooks. I think it gave me the feeling I’ve always had about the environment. In retrospect, she was a wonderful person. She told us the names of the flowers and pointed out the birds and trees. I just loved knowing all this and bringing little things home and planting them.”
Marian’s father reinforced Miss Hammond’s love of nature, teaching Marian to plant snowdrops and crocuses and daffodils around the base of the trees on the front lawn. He also wrote out pastoral poems for her in his own hand, such as this one, extolling the English countryside:
Where the flowers grow the sweetest
Where the brook goes singing by
Where the corn grows up the neatest
Grass and flowers lie.
Where the little lambs go skipping
Up and down the hills
Through the cooling woods they wander
Where the blackbird trills.
Marian especially looked forward to visiting her uncle Will and aunt Mabel in the rural village of Peaslake, Surrey, about twenty-five miles southeast of London, near the medieval town of Guildford. Will Turner had made his money in China (he had sent the doll), and he and his wife, who had no children, retired in Peaslake to a large, beautiful house with a field of sheep next door. Marian fondly remembered being allowed to hold a lamb there in her arms. But the highlight was walking with Aunt Mabel to a mysterious, beautiful spring called the Silent Pool. This serene Surrey Hills landmark has been venerated as a magical place since medieval times and is now a public park. Fed by an underground spring and enshrouded by poplars and gently drooping vegetation, the Silent Pool’s uncannily glassy surface and pure, translucent water afford a view directly to the bottom, from which tiny bubbles rise. Red-wing red blackbirds chirrup in the trees, and when disturbed, partridges flutter up from the trail. The rolling countryside surrounding, especially by Albury, is idyllic, with a neo-Gothic Catholic church perched on a hill, fly fishermen plying the Tillingbourne River, red and white hawthorn spreading up the hills from the roadside, and great manor houses with a distinctive, baroque style of multiple chimneys that recall Toad Hall from The Wind in the Willows. “We would just stare at the pool,” recalled Marian. “We didn’t stay long, but long enough to take everything in.” McPartland would later commemorate these pastoral childhood reveries by naming the title song of one of her albums “Silent Pool.”
Marian’s growing love of the natural world was accompanied by something else as old as Albion itself, a magical animism that invested nature with mystical power. Marian devoured illustrated books about fairies and also wrote some fairy stories of her own, printed in an immaculate hand with astonishing sophistication and clarity—not to say botanical knowledge. Her story “Helpful Bluebell” told the tale of a fairy who lived inside a hollow tree and read nursery rhymes to the young chicks of a bird called a yellow hammer whose egg had been rescued after it fell from a tree. In “The Lost Ball Dress,” a fairy butterfly attended a dance in a gown made from a yellow moon daisy.
In Marian’s fantasy world, there were no scolding mothers—only happy endings. Out in the real world, things were not so rosy. England’s massive public debt after World War I had led to a depression that would last nearly twenty years. And while the Turners held on to their upper-middle-class lifestyle during “the slump”—“I don’t remember there being a depression for us,” Marian said—thrift and moderation were bywords of her childhood. Every piece of string that came into the house was unknotted and saved, buttons were stored in a tin, everything was neatly folded and reused. In 1926, in response to stagnant wages, the Labour Party called for a general strike and public transportation ground to a halt. Marian’s father nevertheless found his way to work and even volunteered to drive a bus.
“It was a very long way from Bromley to Woolwich, which only shows the great tenacity of the Conservative middle class of that time,” wrote Marian’s sister, Joyce, in a memoir. “It never occurred to Father to stay at home in bed with a book while the General Strike struck all ’round him. Get to work if you can, said the Government, and that was enough to get Father onto his bike, pedaling fast.” On the last day of the strike—it went for only nine days—Joyce added that someone stole Frank’s bike.
Meanwhile, Marian had outgrown Miss Hammond’s. In 1927, her mother enrolled her in the Avonclyffe School, and the peripatetic Turners moved again, to 50 Palace Grove, Marian’s home for the remainder of her childhood. Though not quite as grand as 34 Cambridge Road, Palace Grove was another handsome, three-story detached house with front and back garden on a pleasant street full of similar homes and a stone’s throw from the High Street.
Wrote Joyce: “When Mother wanted to move, we moved. The garden was not so nice in Palace Grove but Father, patient and kind, set to, to make it lovely. He built a summer house with stained glass windows. Those windows were so beautiful. He also got two pennies, one with your year of birth on it, and one with mine, and screwed them to the wall of the summer house. He obviously thought we’d live there forever, because he said that when young men were holding our hands in the summer house we’d have to tell the truth about our ages, as there were the pennies for all to see. In that garden Father used to write our names in flowers neatly planted, do you remember?”
Janet liked to have the maid bring tea out to the summer house—cakes, sandwiches, tarts, the whole lot—and Marian was astonished in retrospect how she and her friends could wolf down so much food at four o’clock and still eat supper. Six lime trees stood in front of the house, three on each side of the porch, the branches of which Marian’s father violently pruned to stubby knobs every year, which annoyed Marian for the rest of her life. Frank grew wisteria on a wall that ran between his house and the one next door.
When Janet Turner had friends to tea, she sometimes asked Marian to play. She remembered one afternoon in particular when her mother’s friend Nita Hookham came by. Mrs. Hookham and Marian’s mother chatted throughout Marian’s performance, then said, “Very nice, dear.” (“They’re still doing it,” Marian noted sardonically of her audiences.) Nita and Felix Hookham and their daughter, Peggy, became family friends. Peggy was later known as the famous ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn.
Palace Grove held a swirl of other memories familiar to many British children of the era: the smell of chloroform before a tonsillectomy in the upstairs nursery; mixing watercolors of blue and yellow to get just the right shade of green to paint a leaf; Winnie-the-Pooh and Black Beauty (“I felt so bad for that horse!—wound up drawing a cart”); cups of steaming hot cocoa; jigsaw puzzles; houses of cards that toppled to the floor; and windup toys that scurried across the great mahogany table.
“I was a dreamy sort of child, living in a half world of difficult schoolwork, reading a great deal, playing the piano a lot, and helping my father in the garden,” she said.
And then there were family vacations. At the seashore at Herne Bay near Margate, Marian took her first—and last—puff on a cigarette. “I thought I must join the gang,” she said. “I choked like mad and decided I was never going to do that.” Janet’s favorite getaway, though—and one of Marian’s, too—was Limpsfield, a country village famous for its fields of bluebells. One year Marian was rushed home from Limpsfield, having caught the measles. When she later had a bout with pneumonia—serious business in those pre-penicillin days—Joyce recalled somewhat facetiously being “terribly cross” that her sister had arrogated her territory.
“Being ill, I felt, was my particular talent,” wrote Joyce, “and why the hell couldn’t you stick to playing the piano in a decent and forthright manner instead of taking up my role of the frail young girl … no one had time to ask what my temperature was.…”
Despite their good-natured competition, Marian got along well with her sister and one Christmas did her a good deed Joyce never forgot. Christmas in England was nothing like the extravagant material blowout it is in America. Nevertheless, the house was decorated with holly, carolers came to the door, and the family usually went to Uncle Ted’s for a turkey dinner. However, Marian’s fastidious mother drew the line at having a live tree. Every year an artificial Christmas tree was ceremoniously unfolded, its limp needles fluffed up and decorated. One Christmas when Joyce lay in bed, ill, she begged for a real Christmas tree with pine needles. When Joyce fell asleep, Marian surreptitiously opened up the artificial tree and to every limb tied a branch of real fir cut from the tree in the garden. When Joyce woke up, it was standing by the bed in a red pot with silver and gold ornaments and tinsel and a bird with a spun glass tail. Joyce never forgot this grand gesture of sibling affection.
Despite repeated requests from Marian, her mother refused to find her a piano teacher, arguing that she played so well by ear, she didn’t need lessons, a curiously obtuse position for an accomplished pianist who had taken lessons as a young girl and come from a family of music teachers. When Marian was nine, her mother insisted she study violin, saying she had “violin fingers,” whatever that meant—presumably that they were long and strong—and a teacher named Edith Jarvis was recruited. Edith unfortunately died and was succeeded by her assistant, Eleanor Izzard (who Marian sometimes cheerfully chanted under her breath might “die in a blizzard”). Under Miss Izzard’s tutelage, Marian played her first public recital when she was ten. Though Marian despised the violin, she was a deferent, retiring, and obedient little girl who didn’t dare complain. Such things simply were not done by “nice” children—especially little girls—in 1928. But she nevertheless longed to somehow muster the courage to assert herself against her mother’s imperious dictates—instrumental and otherwise. Perhaps that is why her violin debut turned into such a disaster.
“It was in some parochial hall or church hall,” Marian recalled, “and I had some woman play for me—I don’t know why my teacher didn’t play, because she was a marvelous pianist as well as a good violin player—but I remember this awful woman playing who couldn’t play the piece at all. She got me lost. I think this was the first time I ever hollered at somebody. I said to her, ‘You ruined my performance!’ or something like that. I was in tears. I remember her just giving me a blank stare.”
For anyone who grew up playing a musical instrument, the image of a ten-year-old girl bawling out her adult accompanist for making a mistake is rather startling. And to say so in front of other adults was even more bold and unusual. Marian’s impulse to speak up for herself must have been driven by a powerful force, one at odds with everything her parents—and her environment—had instilled in her. For while she may truly have thought of herself as a shy, “nice,” self-effacing little girl who always did as she was told, she also clearly had an unusually high self-regard—and extremely high standards—for a child. In that self-regard was the seed of a diva who—perhaps in self-defense—was developing a strong, stubborn will that could stand up to her mother. This push and pull between the need to be “nice” and please others—first her parents and then her friends, colleagues, and lovers—and an equally strong need to be appreciated, loved, and admired as an artist would establish the central dynamic of Marian’s early life.
The scorching summer of 1928 sparked a fad in England for sunbathing, as well as Mexican straw hats, suntan lotion, and more daring bathing suits. Slimming became a cult. As a teen, Marian fell in enthusiastically with both trends, becoming an avid sunbather and fastidious dieter all her life. Frank’s brother Harry, known in the family as the grumpy uncle (perhaps because his deafness was the worst of all the Turner men), most emphatically did not approve. When Marian and Joyce arrived at Eastbourne one summer for a weekend visit, Uncle Harry was scandalized by Marian’s backless sundress.
Joyce’s account was amusing:
“‘What are you wearing?’ he asked. ‘A sundress,’ you said, fairly enough, as it was a sundress. ‘Go home at once,’ he said, ‘and put on some Proper Clothes.’ You offered to hang a newspaper over your shoulders while visiting him, but we were ordered home, your flippancy disregarded.”
Though Uncle Harry was exceptionally grouchy, Janet and Frank were overprotective and strict with their girls, too, forbidding them to wear makeup. Marian recalled once smearing something on her face—“I don’t remember what, probably blackberry juice”—and presenting herself to her mother, who declared, “Margaret! Take that stuff off. You look like a clown!” Throughout her teen years, when Marian bought shoes, her father accompanied her to the shop.
“He would take a foot rule and measure the heel,” she said. “I couldn’t buy the shoe if he thought the heel was too high.”
Even when Marian was seventeen, her mother insisted she insert a “modesty” at the front and back of a new dress she’d bought for a dance, because Janet didn’t think the cleavage was “seemly.”
Looking back, Marian chuckled, since the boy her mother had fixed her up with turned out to be gay.
“I didn’t find that out till years later,” said Marian. “Maybe Mummy knew and thought we were safe with them!”
But such issues concerning sexuality—and sensuality, for that matter—were simply not discussed. Adding to the sense of the forbidden, there were books on the shelf Marian was prohibited from reading. And while Frank had taken Marian aside at a certain point to explain “where babies come from,” in classic schoolyard fashion, some of Marian’s early knowledge of sex had come from a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover surreptitiously slipped to her by Stratford House classmate Pamela Brown.
Marian’s “flippancy,” noted so keenly by her sister, was to become one of her most enduring character traits, particularly as she approached adolescence. It gradually blossomed into a steely determination to have her own way. It also wound up getting her into a pile of trouble at school. Though she had started out as a withdrawn and solitary child, by her teen years she was mouthy, stubborn, and flip. After two years at Avonclyffe—and just as the stock market crashed—Janet Turner decided Marian wasn’t learning much, so she deposited her at the stricter Holy Trinity Convent, whose stern sisters led a prayer before every class. An imposing brick edifice along Plaistow Road with a great playing field in back, it stood adjacent to St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, where Marian attended mass.
On the musical front, Marian had abandoned the violin by now but continued to enjoy being a “ham,” as she put it, playing popular songs on the piano for the kids at Holy Trinity. One of the first tunes she learned—by ear, off the radio—was “You’re Blasé,” introduced by the singer Binnie Hale in the 1932 London stage show Bow Bells. A couple of classmates played, too, and Marian recollected “copping good chord changes” from one of them. Though she made friends at school—hanging out at the Sundridge sweet shop buying “gob stoppers” with her pals—Marian still felt something of a misfit. She relished being “accepted” for her music. “It was my claim to fame,” she explained. At Holy Trinity, she also began to flourish as a vocalist, singing alto and soprano in the school choir under the tutelage of one Ada Bacon Haigh, who regularly displayed her students at recitals and music festivals around town, where Marian, with her perfect pitch, was often featured as a soloist or in duets and took prizes at local music festivals. In April 1933, the Kentish Times noted of her performance of the hymn “Dawn Gentle Flower” and Thomas Arne’s setting of Shakespeare’s “Where the Bee Sucks” that “Margaret Turner has a clear diction and produces her voice in a pleasantly effortless manner.”
The course work at Holy Trinity was heavy, and while Marian excelled as a student, she routinely got low marks for “conduct” and “deportment.” One afternoon, her defiance prompted Sister Joseph to grab her by the scruff of the neck, take her out of the classroom, and lock her in the laundry room.
“She shouted at me in French,” said Marian. “I don’t know what I did. I really don’t.”
Pleas of innocence notwithstanding (certainly no one could have discovered she had a secret crush on the priest, who rode to school on a motorbike!), Marian’s sister, Joyce, who also attended Holy Trinity, had a clear memory of the situation in general, if not of Marian’s specific offense.
“I expect you can remember your life of crime at the Convent,” wrote Joyce. “You were fighting well with Mother and so, I imagine, played up at school to compensate. Anyway, various reports came saying all the things they say when nuns are displeased, and there was a big family fight, and Mother said Boarding School was the answer. You must have been in a state of almost permanent hostility with Mother at that time.”
And so it was, in 1933, that Marian was packed off to the Stratford House School for Girls, suitcase in tow. Founded in 1912, Stratford was a reputable day school in neighboring Bickley, with a boardinghouse next door to its primary, ivy-colored building. The school had about two hundred students, many of whom arrived each morning on the red, single-decker bus that ran through Bickley on its way from Bromley to Chislehurst, though Elspeth Campbell, daughter of local MP Sir Edward Campbell, was dropped off by car. Shortly after Marian entered Stratford House as a boarder, she began to develop violent migraine headaches, and her doctor advised her mother to switch Marian to day student status. Boarding school, that brutal English tradition, was not to become a lasting part of Marian’s story. In a few weeks, her mother relented, though the headaches persisted for some time.
“There was lots of throwing up and feeling awful for days,” Marian later wrote, realizing her childhood migraines were related to a syndrome of depression that persisted into adulthood. “After lying in bed for about three days, constantly vomiting and having Mummy ministering to me, I would finally come around, and I remember that first solid food (a boiled egg) as tasting just glorious.”
The tone at Stratford House was set by Eva Georgiana Wilkinson, “every inch a headmistress,” wrote Stratford House historian Susan Pittman, “a commanding presence with a gracious manner, who sailed along the corridors with her academic gown billowing behind, or with a ready smile and great charm, as she greeted parents on Sports Day wearing a flowered hat and flowing garments bedecked with innumerable strings of beads.”
The school was well outfitted, with a chemistry lab, grass tennis courts, and a playing field where the girls—wearing pale blue cotton gym costumes called “jibbahs”—played field hockey and rounders and danced Eurythmics. The regular uniform was a navy blue dress with detachable beige tussore collar and tie. Miss Wilkinson took only “well-spoken and well-bred girls from good backgrounds,” but girls from genteel families who had fallen on hard times during “the slump” were charged half the fee. Miss Wilkinson’s noblesse oblige went only so far, however. When she discovered parents donating old uniforms to charity, she feared they would be worn “by children of the wrong type” and thereby bring discredit to Stratford House.
School began with a prayer and Miss Hollins, who taught art and geometry, persuading the girls to breathe deeply to expand their chests. After a hearty hymn, the girls marched out singing a Gilbert & Sullivan tune. “Solid” courses like algebra, German, English, and botany were offered, and there were outings to London to see theater, opera, and the symphony. At lunch, the girls might walk home and on the way back treat themselves at Mrs. Parfitt’s Sweet Shop at Bickley Station.
Miss Wilkinson was also big on catering and domestic science.
“I feel sure,” she reasoned, “that future husbands will profit thereby, for, if maidless, these girls will be able to do work efficiently, and, if fortunate to have domestics they will be able to train their maids correctly.”
As Miss Wilkinson’s remarks revealed so aptly, girls at Stratford House were being trained not for university—or careers—but for marriage. Nevertheless, Marian got a good education, one that would serve her well in later life. Under the watchful eye of Miss Hollins, Marian learned to paint meticulously crafted, botanically correct watercolors from nature—poppies, pansies, nasturtiums, roses, primroses, and violets—one of which was used for the cover of the school magazine. Marian later hung a framed set of these lovely watercolors in her house in Port Washington, New York, and used one as the cover art for her album The Single Petal of a Rose.
Marian also excelled in drama and debate (“elocution”). With her love of popular music, she hotly contested the resolution that “Composers of Jazz Have Rendered a Disservice to Music,” “handily carrying the majority,” reported classmate Doris Kidney. Ditto, the same year, for “The Cinema Is a Degenerating Amusement.” Marian played the part of Bottom in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and, at the school’s fall prize-giving ceremony in 1934, recited from the bard’s Henry VIII, a program that concluded with “tea in the common room.” Roles as Gratiano in The Merchant of Venice and Aunt Imogen in W. Graham Robertson’s Pinkie and the Fairies were hers as well.
When Marian entered Stratford House, the school was divided into two “houses,” named for Queens Victoria and Elizabeth. The “Lizzies” and the “Vics” competed in sports. In 1934, with expanded enrollment, a third house, the Alexandrans, was formed and Marian took her place as house treasurer for the autumn term. Marian’s suggestion that the Alexandrans adopt the sweet pea as its flower was accepted, and she painted the flower for the house crest. She also wrote the lyrics for the “house song,” “Press On and Persevere,” a maxim one could imagine her father heartily seconding.
While Marian embraced school activities with relish, her report cards reflected a desultory attitude toward core studies, summed up by the snippy Miss Wilkinson as follows: “Margaret has good ability and can do well when she likes. We wish she would make up her mind to work more seriously and also remember that she is a Senior member of the School.”
“When she likes” would seem to have been the key phrase. For a budding young artist, it was, perhaps, not a bad trait, as making art requires focus. An inclination to pursue what she liked—music and art—and let the rest be damned probably hastened her development. It also reflected an increasingly entrenched willfulness and resistance to authority.
By this time, Marian had finally convinced her mother to give her piano lessons. She was sixteen years old. A local teacher, Gwen Massey, was recruited and Marian studied with her for better than a year. In May 1934, under the aegis of Holy Trinity vocal teacher Ada Bacon Haigh, Marian sang two songs written by Massey, “Elves” and “The Moon Maids,” as well as “The Song of the Music Makers” by Martin Shaw, at Bromley’s Robert Whyte Memorial Hall. The local paper praised her singing, noting, however, that she was “suffering from a cold.”
Marian continued to entertain her mates at school, with increasing sophistication. Said Barbara Strudwick, a classmate who went on to a professional career as a violinist: “She used to sit down at the grand piano in the great hall at the school and just play and play and play. She was very good. I don’t think she could read much. She didn’t shine in music classes at all. That is, not from the classical point of view. She was ‘jazzy.’”
Marian excelled at improvisation at quite an early age. At the 1934 Bromley Music Festival, she won the prize for “extemporization.” That same year, she was praised in the Kentish Times for her “lyrical and sincere” vocal interpretation of Mendelssohn’s “The First Violet” and took a junior prize at the piano for playing Frank Bridge’s “Rosemary” “very well indeed.”
“I was very keen to show them what I could do,” she recalled, noting that the many prizes she won for piano, voice, and composition had by now made her something of a local teen celebrity.
Marian’s teacher Gwen Massey was responsible for Marian’s appearances at some of the festivals where she won prizes, but Marian’s primary response to Massey was that under no circumstances did she ever want to become a piano teacher herself. Miss Massey lived with her mother and, like Marian’s Sunday school teacher, had a “spinsterish” look about her. Though she wasn’t quite sure what it was, Marian was beginning to have intimations of another, more glamorous order of existence beyond Bromley or Bickley, something she sensed in the jaunty popular songs and jazz she heard on recordings and on the radio and from a boyfriend named Ken Hughes. Ken had originally come around to see Joyce, but Joyce “lost interest” when Ken and Marian hit it off playing records. Joyce, after all, said Marian, could have her pick of boyfriends. She was “the pretty one,” languid and comfortable in her own body, and to whom flirting came easily. Marian, more awkward around boys, had nevertheless blossomed into a young woman with an attractive figure, deep brown eyes, and a smile that flickered with wicked humor. Marian loved her parents’ record of Bing Crosby singing “Please,” but Ken’s new jazz records made that seem tame. She and Ken pored over 78 rpm recordings by Duke Ellington, Sidney Bechet, Muggsy Spanier, the Benny Goodman Trio, and Bud Freeman’s famous showpiece “The Eel.”
“[Ken] made me really listen,” recalled Marian. “He made me aware of the Ellington band’s unique orchestral sounds, the quality and tone color of each soloist, Duke as a pianist, his way of voicing chords, the strong, exciting rhythms of the band. I absorbed it all, and from then on I was hooked! We’d discuss the records and say, ‘What do you think of this and that? How did you like that chord?’ Then I’d go to the piano and try to play it and take things off by Teddy [Wilson] and Duke.”
Marian’s Stratford House friend Margaret Cooper, also a pianist, introduced Marian to the music of the popular British piano ace Billy Mayerl, who had megahits in England with “Marigold” and “Ace of Hearts.” Margaret and Marian played Mayerl’s sheet music at Palace Grove after school, trading off playing for each other. Margaret began inviting Marian to play for parties at her house.
As at Holy Trinity, music provided an avenue to acceptance.
“I always felt like I was not with the in-crowd,” she said. “I didn’t have ‘it,’ unless I was playing, and then they all dug me. I would sit down at the piano and all the kids would crowd around. I needed approbation, and this was how I got it.”
At a party, Marian met another young pianist with a yen for jazz, Ray Cobb, who had two pianos at his house. The two would play tunes for each other, comparing notes and having conversations about the music.
But by far the richest source for Marian of new popular tunes was the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). On the air since 1922, the BBC had from its inception made popular dance music a mainstay of its evening programming, forming an alliance in 1923 with the Savoy Hotel’s Savoy Orpheans led by Carroll Gibbons and the Savoy Havana Band featuring Billy Mayerl on piano. Though it held no brief for jazz per se—in fact was passively hostile to it—the BBC saw the promotion of popular music as part of its mission to bring the social classes closer together. Popular music and jazz were broadcast under the rubric “dance music,” considered respectable because of the upper-class tea dance and hotel venues where it was played. Marian most certainly heard these live broadcasts in the drawing room at Palace Grove, including the bands of Jack Payne, Jack Hylton, Henry Hall, Lew Stone, Bert Ambrose, and Roy Fox.
These groups played what jazz musicians call “sweet”—as opposed to “hot”—music. They didn’t swing or improvise much. In fact, like America’s Paul Whiteman (the paragon of a “sweet” stylist), they conceived of themselves as having improved on the “raw” jazz that had first appeared in England in 1919, when the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and Marion Cook’s Southern Syncopated Orchestra (with Sidney Bechet) had first visited. These bands declined to even call their music “jazz,” preferring “sophisticated syncopation.” The BBC’s monopoly of the airwaves and strict British union protection of local jobs guaranteed that sweet, “sophisticated syncopation” trumped “jazz” in the 1920s and 1930s. When the hot new big band music of Benny Goodman ushered in the swing era in America in 1935, Britain very nearly missed the movement altogether. British jazz itself wouldn’t flower until the 1940s, when the policies at the BBC began to change.
Marian was introduced to jazz in this diluted form. Though she tried to copy what she heard on the radio, the idea of how to improvise in swing time was a mystery.
“I didn’t know what was pop and what was jazz,” she confessed. “I just learned the tunes. And I didn’t have any kind of ‘beat.’”
That Marian’s early exposure to jazz was song-centered is extremely important in understanding her development. Many jazz artists could care less about tunes, so obsessed are they about the possibilities of harmony and improvisation. Marian always started with the song and never forgot it, lyrics included. This valorization of melody would become one of the hallmarks of her mature playing, even after her rhythmic abilities caught up. It accounts in part for her broad accessibility to the public, which has always responded more readily to the emotional punch of a good song than to complicated variations on it.
In the programs for the Ada Bacon Haigh vocal recitals as well as the school production of Pinkie and the Fairies was listed one Doris Mackie, L.G.S.M. Mackie became the most seminal influence on Marian McPartland’s teen years and a lifelong friend who figured prominently in her life. A conservatory graduate—the L.G.S.M. after her name meant “licentiate of the Guildhall School of Music”—“Mac,” as she was called, taught elocution at Stratford House.
Though married, with two sons, Mackie “had a masculine air about her,” reported Marian’s niece Sheila, and she had a close female friend, Nora, who ran a dance class in Bromley, for which she recruited Marian to play piano. It was de rigueur for English schoolgirls (and schoolboys, for that matter) in those days to have same-sex crushes on their public school teachers, and Marian developed a great crush on Doris Mackie. They became quite friendly, and Marian even remembered borrowing money from her to buy something she wanted at Harrods, in retrospect, something she saw as rather bold, but that Mackie was quite “carefree” about.
Mac became a familiar face in the Turner household and eventually took both Margaret and Joyce under her wing as a sort of surrogate aunt. She was just the kind of friendly champion Marian needed. Marian’s parents had begun to worry about her future. According to Joyce, their mother wondered how such a willful girl would ever settle down to a nice life as a banker’s or solicitor’s wife and raise a family. With her interest in music, one supposed she could become a piano teacher, but Marian had already ruled that out. Marian remembered her mother looking at her directly in the eye at one point and saying rather sharply, “Well, you’d better decide what you want to do in life because we can’t keep you.”
“I guess I was about fifteen or sixteen, and it sort of hit me like a knock on the head,” said Marian. “I remember the moment clearly. I had this awful feeling that something had changed—that childhood was over.”
One night over dinner, when Mac was visiting, the subject of Marian’s future came up and Frank Turner turned to the trusted teacher for advice. With an imploring tone, he asked, “What shall we do with her?” Mac was stunned. Had they never considered sending Margaret to London, to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama? And if not, why not? It was so obvious to her that Marian was a musical prodigy, it had never occurred to her that her parents hadn’t noticed. Frank Turner was a reasonable man, but he knew little about such things. How was it done? Mrs. Mackie explained about auditioning and so forth and put Marian’s father in touch with the right people. It was the spring of 1935.
Marian went down to London and auditioned for Sir Landon Ronald, director of the Guildhall School.
“I was shaking in my boots,” said Marian, whose sight-reading skills had never been good. “I thought, ‘They’ll never take me. I’m not good enough.’”
“My girl,” said Sir Landon, “you are sadly lacking in technique, devastatingly lacking. But you have rampant enthusiasm, God-given facility, and a dangerous surplus of imagination.”
To Marian’s utter surprise, she was accepted.
Copyright © 2012 by Paul de Barros
1 "What Shall We Do with Her?" (1918-1935) 1
2 London (1935-1944) 27
3 "Oh, No! A Girl Piano Player!"(1944-1946) 51
4 Jimmy: "I Like You, Kid" (1907-1944) 75
5 Windy City Apprentice (1946-1950) 101
6 Getting to First Base with Three Strikes (1950-1953) 123
7 New York's Golden Age of Jazz, Part I (1953-1956) 149
8 New York's Golden Age of Jazz, Part II (1956-1958) 171
9 Loss (1958-1964) 191
10 Long Island Retreat (1964-1967) 215
11 Lost … and Found (1968-1973) 235
12 The Jazz Renaissance (1973-1978) 265
13 Piano Jazz (1978-1982) 295
14 Heyday (1982-1987) 317
15 Exit Jimmy (1987-1994) 345
16 Sweet Times (1995-2003) 375
Selected Recordings 457