Shall We Play That One Together?: The Life and Art of Jazz Piano Legend Marian McPartlandby Paul de Barros
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/p>… See more details below
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.
“…de Barros jauntily chronicles her dazzling life lived in the company of jazz greats from Oscar Peterson, Bobby Short, and Duke Ellington to Diana Krall and Chick Corea. Drawing on innumerable interviews and unrestricted access to McPartland's personal archives, de Barros produces a truly engaging biography of this jazz genius.” Publishers Weekly
“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
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Shall We Play That One Together?
The Life and Art of Jazz Piano Legend Marian McPartland
By Paul de Barros
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2012 Paul de Barros
All rights reserved.
"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.
Excerpted from Shall We Play That One Together? by Paul de Barros. Copyright © 2012 Paul de Barros. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Meet the Author
PAUL DE BARROS covers jazz and world music for the Seattle Times and is a noted freelance jazz critic.
PAUL DE BARROS covers jazz and world music for the Seattle Times and is a noted freelance jazz critic. He is the author of Shall We Play That One Together?: The Life and Art of Jazz Piano Legend Marian McPartland.
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