For years, Marian McPartland was defined by an offhand comment that critic Leonard Feather made in the jazz magazine Down Beat in 1951. McPartland, wrote the British-born Feather, had “three hopeless strikes against her”: She was British, white and female. She often made a joke of her “handicaps” in the male-dominated world of an American music born of the black experience, but this new biography by Seattle jazz writer Paul de Barros shows the difficulty of her struggle and the determination behind her success. 

McPartland, who turns 95 next March, came to the United States in the 1940s after marrying jazz cornetist Jimmy McPartland. She spent decades paying her musical dues but gained her greatest renown only after turning 60, when she became host of the popular public radio program “Piano Jazz.”

Born Margaret Marian Turner into a strict, class-conscious British family, she studied at a London conservatory, then dropped out to join a touring piano quartet, adopting the stage name Marian Payne and later Marian Page. During World War II, she entertained troops throughout Europe and grew accustomed to the world of show business. Some of the most interesting parts of de Barros’s biography describe this phase of her life, as the sheltered girl from a proper background became an assertive, independent woman.

In Belgium during the war, she met Jimmy McPartland, a brash, charismatic cornet player who had been a major figure in Chicago jazz since the 1920s. They married in 1945, and Jimmy introduced his new bride to Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and the life of jazz. For Jimmy, much of that life revolved around drinking, and the marriage was troubled from the start.  

After the McPartlands moved to New York in 1950, Marian began to flourish. She was one of 57 musicians — and one of four still living — in the famous 1958 jazz group portrait known as “A Great Day in Harlem.” She spent much of the 1950s performing at New York’s Hickory House, where one of her drummers was Joe Morello, who later gained acclaim during his long association with Dave Brubeck. Even though both McPartland and Morello were married to others, they had a long, passionate affair that McPartland, de Barros writes, found “terrifying, thrilling, guilt-producing, and unbelievably fulfilling.” After almost a decade she broke off the affair and went into psychoanalysis. Her shaky marriage collapsed a few years later.  

’Shall We Play That One Together?: The Life and Art of Jazz Piano Legend Marian McPartland’ by Paul De Barros (St. Martin's)

At a time when the women’s movement was taking hold, McPartland began to blossom as a musician and journalist, writing reviews and profiles for jazz magazines and occasionally appearing on the radio. In 1978, she found the perfect outlet for her skills when she recorded the first episodes of “Piano Jazz,” an hour-long program in which she and another musician, usually a pianist, talked about jazz and performed together, often creating memorable music. 

“Each show had a different atmosphere and mood,” de Barros writes, “depending on the guest.” For jazz fans, the guest list is a stroll through Valhalla: Dizzy Gillespie, Bill Evans, Mary Lou Williams, Carmen McRae, Tony Bennett, Shirley Horn, Dave Brubeck, Chick Corea, Diana Krall — even Willie Nelson and Elvis Costello. Broadcast on hundreds of NPR stations, “Piano Jazz” made McPartland a star and helped codify jazz as a distinct, established art form. “A more perfect vehicle for McPartland would be hard to imagine,” de Barros writes, “in that it satisfied both her great desire to thrust brilliant jazz players into the limelight and to share that limelight herself. Its hybrid nature as journalism and performance was a perfect match.”

Before McPartland retired as host of “Piano Jazz” in 2009, she had become one of the most revered people in jazz. She performed at the White House and the Supreme Court, received countless awards and was designated a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts. She also reunited with her ex-husband and lived with him for 11 years. They remarried shortly before Jimmy McPartland’s death in 1991.  

McPartland gave de Barros full access to her letters, private journals and other material, and he writes knowledgeably about her music and career. He provides an intimate look at McPartland’s life, but not always a flattering one. She could be simultaneously generous and stingy, demanding, kind or disdainful. “In fourteen years,” her onetime agent said, “she never said thank you to anything. Ever.”

“Shall We Play This One Together?” — a phrase McPartland often used on “Piano Jazz” — has moments of insight and revelation. Too often, though, de Barros gets bogged down in the minutiae of family lore and decades-old nightclub reviews. He seldom reaches the inspired levels of, say, David Hajdu’s “Lush Life,” about Billy Strayhorn, or Robin D.G. Kelley’s “Thelonious Monk.” 

Still, he creates a valuable portrait of one of the most beloved and enduring figures in jazz, one whose life continues to be an example of grace, intelligence and strength.

Matt Schudel , a Washington Post staff writer, often writes about jazz.


The Life and Art of Jazz Piano Legend Marian McPartland

By Paul de Barros

St. Martin’s. 484 pp. $35