AFRO-AMERICAN MUSIC INSTITUTE CELEBRATES 36 YEARS
Pain Relief Beyond Belief
by Dom Cerulli — 9/1/1957
Marian McPartland threw back her head and laughed. “You have no idea how often I’ve been asked that,” she said. “And, actually, I don’t know how to answer it.”
The questions were: What are your comments on being a woman in a man’s world, the world of jazz? Are there advantages and disadvantages?
“A little of both,” she answered. “I have come to the point where I try not to think about it at all. I just try to concentrate on improving my playing. I’d rather think of myself as a piano player, anyway.”
Marian’s position is somewhat unusual in the world of jazz. She and Barbara Carroll are the two most popular women group leaders in jazz. Mary Lou Williams, after an absence of some five years from the jazz scene, was scheduled to return to open opposite Marian at the Composer late in August, and add to the number of such leaders.
Marian thought a bit and then said, “Naturally, I guess it does affect me in my dealings with people. I’m divided. … At times I believe if I were a man, I might have acted differently in any given situation. I guess I must be old-fashioned or something, but I don’t want to be clingingly feminine and get my own way because I’m a woman. And the opposite is true, too. I don’t want to be domineering, either.”
The question was put from the other side by an announcer on a recent television show on which the trio appeared.
“How do you like working for a lady?” Bassist Bill Crow was asked.
“I’ve always enjoyed associating with ladies better than gentlemen,” fired back Crow. “There’s nothing strange about that.”
Marian laughed again and added, “I’ve always enjoyed associating with men more than women. It works both ways.”
Unlike most women performers, Marian has a different outlook on clothing. She isn’t constantly replacing her wardrobe just because she’s been seen in it before.
“If a dress fits me and looks well on me,” she said. “There’s really no sense in getting rid of it.”
To prove her point, she planned to open at the Hickory House late in September with the same handsome cocktail gown she wore when she first opened there for a two-week engagement (which lasted three years) in 1952.
She also has mixed feelings about her work with a trio. On one hand she admits that she would like the stimulation of working in a larger group. “If you’re working with a group,” she mused, “you may not be doing so well for a bit, and you have a chance to be fresh when your turn comes to play. You don’t have to carry the whole thing all the time. And a group can give you a whole new set of ideas.”
Then why work with a trio?
“I’ve often thought about that myself,” Marian answered. “I like to be free and able to improvise. If someone calls out a tune, and we have no arrangement of it, even if we don’t know it, it’s always fun to work it out as we go. To me, that’s jazz.
“Sometimes we’ll do a thing like that, and it comes off so good we’ll do it again and again, and pretty soon we’ll have an arrangement. I like to be free and have room to work around.”
Now toying with the idea of expanding her group, perhaps by the addition of a horn, Marian admitted, “I’m thinking of a woodwind thing. Funny, when I think of adding a horn, I always think of Jimmy Giuffre. Though I know that isn’t possible, of course.”
Marian started playing in trumpeter-husband Jimmy’s group in this country and later formed her own trio to open at the Hickory House. Since then, she has paused from time to time to sit in with Jimmy or appear with him as a guest. When playing with Jimmy and Bud Freeman, she said, she edits her playing down to leaner dimensions.
“I try not to clutter things up,” she said. “I play as sparely as possible. I think of Count Basie.
“There are so many times I think of Count Basie,” she smiled. “I’m trying to get out of that habit of overplaying. I’ll say to myself, ‘If Count had played just then, he wouldn’t have played like that.’ Thinking that way, I realize that I shouldn’t have done anything there, or I should have played less than I did.”
Jimmy, from his vantage point atop 34 years in jazz, commented, “One of the things I find today is that there aren’t many piano players with left hands. And I don’t agree with this new idea that the bass drum is used only once in a while.”
Marian added, “That’s right. If Joe Morello could do it, why can’t some of the others? It’s like an alibi. So many right-hand piano players just seem lazy to me. I feel the bass drum should be kept going delicately most of the time.”
Among Marian’s other observations:
Television: “I feel TV people just haven’t utilized jazz on TV. Unless the performers are smiling and waving their arms, they’re not coming through visually. If people take the time and trouble to set up lights and camera angles …
“We did Look Up and Live a couple of times, and we spent a lot of time in rehearsal. But it was worth it. I saw the kinescopes, and the lights were all low key and the camera angles were wonderful. I still get comments on those shows.
“If they’d just let musicians be themselves and not expect them to wave their arms or smile that the camera, they’d get much better results.”
Modern Piano: “It seems to me that the newer crop of piano players are rather preoccupied with time. … They’re not playing all the piano, just a certain area of it. A guy like Billy Taylor can do all those things—the rhythm patterns and percussive sounds—and still play on 88 keys. And with beautiful harmony and a delicate touch.
“Another thing I can’t stand is this routine of playing in two or three keys, C, F and G. There are 12 keys. All right, it’s a litter harder to pay in F-sharp, but it’s also a lot more fun.
“There may be a feeling that it’s sentimental or sissified to play with rich harmony. I do love full and interesting harmony, like the way the Ellington band in voiced. The funky players will find they’re not losing anything if they play ballads with more varied harmony. Let them go home and play some Debussy or Ravel.
“John Mehegan plays ballads with wonderful voicings, and [Dave] Brubeck has a lovely ballad touch. Why, this modern piano playing thing is reduced to single notes with an occasional whack in the bass with the left hand. I don’t believe people should confine themselves to one part of the piano. It’s like playing in one register on a horn.
“That’s why I like Erroll [Garner], too. Some may think he’s corny, but I think he’s the world’s real putter-onner. It sounds like he’s putting everybody on with some of those interpolations. He plays all 88 keys, too. And they stay played.
“Bud [Powell] at his best had a lot of lyrical things going. Now that school seems harmonically thinned-down a little. But, I’d still love to be able to have the wonderful percussive time sense these guys have … like Eddie Costa. I admire that tremendously.”
Other groups: “I like to listen to all kinds of groups. Sometimes they’re so good I have a feeling of despair. Then I come out of it and say, “I’ve heard something real good, and I’ve learned from it.
“Conversely, when I’ve heard something real bad, I say that I think I can do better than that, or I can improve on that. Either way, there’s a lot to learn.”
Drummers: “‘A pox on all drummers!’ to quote Bill Crow. Every time Jimmy and I hear Buddy Rich, we’re gassed. What a performer. Then there’s Joe Morello … he used to kill me with some of the things he’d do in four-bar breaks. He always seems to know exactly what’s right to do. And he’s so darn funny.”
Criticism: “It helps to have good criticism. Some of the best I’ve ever had came from Lennie Tristano. I played him some records I’d made, and he was rather sarcastic but he was honest. I respected his opinion, and he was right. I’ve tried to correct the things he talked about.”
Arm-Chair Critics: “Lots of them seem to use bad grammar. They’ll say, ‘He don’t swing.’”
Recording: I should always let a good long time elapse before I hear the things I’ve recorded. Sometimes I get shocked at what I hear. I never play as well in a recording studio as I do in a club. I would love to be recorded without knowing it. When I’m recording, I tend to be too careful.”
Style: I don’t know how long it will be before I settle into a style. I don’t think I ever have. I’m still trying. That’s why I admire someone like Mary Lou Williams so much. She’s changed with the times. I like that. I would like to find an identifying style, but I can’t just furrow my brow and create one. If it happens, it happens. If not, I’ll do the best I can with what I have.”
Clubs: “I think a lot of club owners pass up a good thing in good lighting. I can think of at least two clubs with excellent lighting: the London House and Baker’s Keyboard. You play better and are happier. You can make little productions out of sets. Good lighting and a good piano are half the battle.”
Marian McPartland: “I feel I’ve been developing and improving musically. It hasn’t always been easy, but it’s always interesting. Like going through the college of hard knocks.”