Music That Gets Better With Time

Marian McPartland with the 1958 photo that she calls
Marian McPartland with the 1958 photo that she calls "the greatest jazz photograph ever." Two other surviving musicians from the group, Hank Jones, top right, and Benny Golson, are featured in a Kennedy Center jazz festival. (By R.j. Capak)
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 3, 2007

In August 1958, photographer Art Kane asked dozens of jazz musicians to meet on 126th Street in Harlem at, for them, the unholy hour of 10 a.m. "I didn't know there were two 10 o'clocks in the same day," one musician joked.

After the picture Kane took was printed in Esquire in 1959, it was all but forgotten until 1994, when it was revived in Jean Bach's Oscar-nominated documentary, "A Great Day in Harlem." Today just seven of the 57 musicians in the photograph are still alive, and three of them -- saxophonist Benny Golson and pianists Marian McPartland and Hank Jones -- will be in Washington for an eight-day celebration, Jazz in Our Time, that begins tonight at the Kennedy Center.

It will stand as one of the city's most ambitious and illustrious jazz events ever. Golson, McPartland and Jones are scheduled to perform in the coming week and are among among 35 musicians who will receive Living Jazz Legend Awards at the kickoff gala. On March 10, Bach will present a special screening of her film about Kane's photograph, which has become a touchstone of music and memory.

"In retrospect," McPartland says, "that was the greatest jazz photograph ever."

By 1958, when such giants as Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Mary Lou Williams, Charles Mingus, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young gathered on that Harlem street, jazz was already being replaced in the public imagination by the loud, rebellious sounds of rock-and-roll. Yet in spite of its shrinking slice of the market, jazz continues to endure, seemingly of its own will. One secret of its survival may be that jazz is an exception to our culture's obsession with youth. It is an art form in which age brings mastery.

That's why pianist Billy Taylor, artistic adviser to the Kennedy Center, and Michael Kaiser, the center's president, decided to honor some notable creators of the music while they're still with us. Among the legends being feted are saxophonists Ornette Coleman and James Moody; trumpeters Freddie Hubbard and Clark Terry; pianists Dave Brubeck, Barry Harris and Ahmad Jamal; and singers Jon Hendricks, Cleo Laine, Abbey Lincoln and Nancy Wilson.

"The Kennedy Center has never had anything of this scope for this length of time," says Kevin A. Struthers, the center's manager of jazz programming. "This is a one-time-only celebration."

When the honorees were young, jazz was almost an outlaw music, scorned by adults and academics. It took an act of rebellion, or at least a blind leap of faith, for Golson, McPartland and Jones to pursue the jazz life. If they followed different paths, there is one thing on which they all agree: They didn't choose jazz -- jazz chose them.

* * *

McPartland and Jones were both born in 1918, but their early careers could not have been more different. McPartland was born Margaret Marian Turner in England and was studying classical piano at London's Guildhall School of Music when she first encountered the daring new sounds of jazz. She joined a touring piano quartet on England's vaudeville circuit while still in her teens.

"I promised I'd go back to the Guildhall," she recalls, "but I never did."

On a USO tour during World War II, she met and married American cornet player Jimmy McPartland, then settled in the United States after the war. She was the first European-born woman to become a major jazz instrumentalist, and she has also composed songs recorded by Tony Bennett and Sarah Vaughan. McPartland is currently at work on a jazz-inflected piano concerto inspired by the environmental writings of Rachel Carson, and in April she's scheduled to record a new live album with her trio.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company