10:12am

Sun December 5, 2004
Columns

McPartland Gets Her Guests

PLAYING HARD TO GET WON'T WORK WITH MARIAN MCPARTLAND

Attention Stevie Wonder, Keith Jarrett, and Woody Allen: Marian McPartland is after you, and she won't give up until she gets you!

For what? Rest assured, nothing nefarious. McPartland simply wants them to join her in her radio "living room," better known as Piano Jazz. The show, which airs on WMOT onSundays, is the most widely listened-to NPR? jazz program and the longest running national performance program on public radio.

Over the years, McPartland has played piano and chatted with more than 500 guest musicians ranging from Tony Bennett and Ray Charles to Bill Evans and Willie Nelson - but she wants more. She has a "wish list" and won't stop pursuing these musicians, no matter how hard-to-get they play.

"Keith Jarrett has so far turned us down. I'll get him eventually - he's going to have to give up," says the ever-determined McPartland.

Crediting persistence as her only virtue (her fans, of course, could add a few more), McPartland believes that bringing in guest musicians who play various instruments in wide-ranging styles keeps her show fresh. "It's easy to do this," she says. "There are so many great performers out there I'd like to have on." Her eternal search for "something new" led to a programming decision made a few years after the show's 1979 debut. She would not only feature her well-known piano duets but ask other musicians as well as singers to join her.

McPartland's piano pairings date back to the earliest days of her career. Born March 20, 1918, in Windsor, England, McPartland played British music halls as a member of a four-piano group led by Billy Mayerl. She moved to the United States with her husband, cornetist Jimmy McPartland, at the end of World War II and rapidly developed a reputation as a pianist, educator, and eventually, radio personality.

Although many Piano Jazz fans tune in for the music, at least as many love the show because of McPartland's informal and personal conversations with her fellow musicians. "People enjoy hearing musicians talk since many don't normally have an opportunity to do so," she says. "That brings out the essence of the real person making the music." Drawing them out comes naturally for McPartland. "I was brought up to be a sociable person. I want to know so much about these musicians. It's nice to be shut away with someone in the studio. It's very intimate."

Thanks to her musical conversations, McPartland has been credited with creating the ultimate recorded history of jazz musicians. The importance of her body of work is not lost on the creator herself. "I hope that the people who own Piano Jazz, South Carolina Educational Radio, keep it going for educational purposes," she says. "The biographical material needs to be out there and available to others."

Pursuing the guests on her "wish list" is one way McPartland plans to keep documenting jazz history. Another is the steady stream - a flood, really - of suggestions from others. "I have such a barrage of CDs coming in, my house looks like a record store," she quips. And in a revelation that is sure to increase the flood, she disclosed that her curiosity and dedication to helping develop new talent prompts her to listen to everything she receives, including "the well-known and the not-so-well-known." Perhaps the post office should hire a bigger truck for her deliveries.

Meanwhile, for those musicians on McPartland's wish list - be forewarned of the jazz legend's power of persuasion. After years of being on her list, pianist Dave Brubeck finally succumbed and joined her on Piano Jazz. You may be next.