Originally published in Earshot Jazz November 2011
“Can’t we women make our own contribution to jazz by playing like women,” asks pianist Marian McPartland, “but still capturing the essential elements of jazz—good beat—good ideas—honesty and true feeling?” Blazing the trail for gender equality, McPartland contributed this quote in her 1957 article “Playing Like a Man” in the London publication Just Jazz.
Seattle writer Paul de Barros honestly captures these female contributions, ideas and feelings in Shall We Play that One Together? – The Life and Art of Jazz Piano Legend Marian McPartland. The 496-page biography released by St. Martins Press on October 16 features a black and white cover photo of a young brunette McPartland at the piano, smiling a playful glance at the camera over her right shoulder.
The photo and book title embody the story de Barros tells – a poised woman enjoying herself and asking you to share in the fun. The title is an invitation 94 year old McPartland routinely poses to her musical guests during the past three decades of her National Public Radio show Piano Jazz.
What you can’t hear, even on the radio, is McPartland’s musical maturity while swearing like a sailor. De Barros listened to her colorful wit first hand while plumbing the enormous archive at her New England home. “Marian is a pretty crusty character,” de Barros said in a September 19 Jazz Journalists Association webinar Writing Jazz Biographies, “She’s not a trusting person by nature. She probably didn’t get where she is by being trusting.”
De Barros earned her trust. In the webinar he reports that McPartland said, “Come on over and you can look at anything.” Jackpot! McPartland had every review ever published, journals, letters, six previous attempts at her biography by other writers, a complete discography with physical copies of all the recordings, and “thousands of pages of transcripts of interviews.”
This is an unusual situation for a jazz biographer – the subject is alive, the subject has decades of control over her own story, there is a complete archive of material and the author needs to expand the scope and veracity of the story by collecting more original source material. The bar for correct information is higher than ever. De Barros established a brief written agreement that McPartland could review the book for inaccuracies but he would have the final cut.
In the webinar, de Barros described the fine line he walked with his subject. “She offered to pay for a lot of things and I kept having to tell her, ‘No.’ Marian’s pretty well off and she used this car service for everything. She lives out on Long Island and when I went to see [the drummer with whom McPartland had an affair] Joe Morello, may he rest in peace, he was out in East Orange, and she said, ‘Oh I’ll send you out there in a car service’ and I just felt for my own integrity I had to take the bus.”
De Barros close contact with McPartland and the people in her life paints a rich picture of McPartland as artist, educator, lover, step grandmother, mentor, promoter, band leader, and more. For example, bassist Bill Douglass describes recording in 1995 with McPartland on Live at Yoshi’s Nitespot. “There’s always this dialogue going on with her. There’s this sense of play. There are some piano players I’ve played with and it’s fun but there’s no air in it. You’re just playing to accompany them. But with Marian there’s the idea of dialogue, of throwing it back and forth.”
All this information and detail doesn’t grind the reader to a halt. De Barros crafts a narrative that reads like an interesting novel. Scenes are established in vivid detail – replaying Chopin by ear at age three, discovering her perfect pitch at age six, a conservatory professor overhearing her practicing Art Tatum transcriptions, her astonishment at hearing bebop on record for the first time, Lenny Tristano’s lesson of improving her time, George Shearing’s suggestion that she become more outspoken, Duke Ellington’s advice to play fewer notes and her husband, jazz cornetist Jimmy McPartland, supporting her independent career.
A musical spouse supporting another musician? McPartland verified the relationship via email, “Jimmy always encouraged me to be myself and to do my own thing. He even encouraged me to have my own band. Yes, I did take his advice!”
McPartland’s choices evolve with some asides of informed questions by de Barros about her motives. Chapters end with McPartland at dramatic precipices that keep the reader turning pages. Simultaneous threads of artistic development, discography, personal relationships and professional growth are braided with skill.
“Life as we live it has no story,” de Barros said in the webinar. “It’s just a bunch of random things that happen. And so if you tell that story nobody will read it. It isn’t a story. It’s just a bunch of things that happened. So you can’t tell the story of somebody’s life without creating a narrative yourself. A biography is like a novel based on fact.”
Fans of McPartland will find much more to her story than anything previously published. “I found in one of Marian’s file drawers an unpublished 110-page biography of Jimmy McPartland that nobody but Marian and me has ever seen. It was like a gift from the gods.” With Shall We Play That One Together?, de Barros gives us the gift of seeing McPartland’s generous contributions to the story of jazz.
So what does McPartland think of her story told by someone else? McPartland wrote in an email, “I am very happy with what Paul did.”
Visit https://www.seattletimes.com/author/paul-de-barros/ to read more of Paul's work.