When I caught up with Marian McPartland by telephone last week she was in the middle of taping a new season of Piano Jazz, her long-running National Public Radio show. McPartland may be in her mid-80s, but the perennial hipster has recently released CDs with Bruce Hornsby, Elvis Costello, and Steely Dan.
She's busier than ever, but McPartland will make time in her schedule to visit Rochester next Wednesday for a concert honoring a cherished friend, the late Rayburn Wright.
Known for his big band and studio orchestra arrangement for RadioCityMusic Hall, Wright began offering jazz classes at the Eastman School of Music in the 1950s. He started Eastman's jazz program in 1970 and initiated McPartland's special relationship with the school when he invited her to an Arranger's Holiday concert in 1971.
When Wright died in 1990, McPartland and others started a fund in his name to encourage jazz at Eastman. Concert proceeds will go to the fund.
Born in England in 1918, McPartland might seem an unlikely candidate for a jazz luminary, but she insists it was natural.
"Europeans care more about jazz than they do here," McPartland says. "I always listened to jazz on the BBC. I had a boyfriend who brought me all kinds of records: Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman... There were so many people I wanted to meet when I came over here."
Despite critic Leonard Feather's pronouncement that 'she'll never make it, she's English, white and a woman,' McPartland forged a career and met just about every musician she admired. She developed a distinctive piano style, acknowledging the influence of Ellington, Teddy Wilson, Bud Powell, and Bill Evans.
Concord Records has steadily released Piano Jazz shows on CD, each one offering brilliant solos and duets, and invaluable oral history. On recent releases McPartland breaks down walls between musical genres with guests like rockers Walter Becker and Donald Fagen.
"I love Steely Dan," says McPartland. "Their lyrics and their ideas are so clever and they love jazz. They were fascinated with Duke Ellington. They thought I was some kind of supernatural being because I knew Duke."
Similar jazz roots emerged on shows featuring Hornsby, a Bud Powell fan, and Costello, a surprisingly strong standard interpreter. (Check out "The Very Thought of You.")
Highlights of every program include McPartland's impromptu performances with her guests. On a show recorded with Wilson in 1978 she asks him for a random musical phrase and proceeds to weave it into a beautiful improvisation. Even the intricate theme of Piano Jazz was composed on the spot.
"We were doing the show in the Baldwin Showroom," she says. "We didn't have much money. The producer said we have to have a theme. I was about to record a show with Bill Evans; I felt very nervous to have him sitting there. The producer said 'just write something nervous, like people talking' and I came up with that in a minute."
McPartland's undiminished spirit of adventure should play a large role in Wednesday's concert. She'll play piano duets with former Wright student Ellen Rowe and Eastman faculty members Tony Caramia, Bill Dobbins, and Harold Danko. She'll join Jeff Campbell (bass) and Rich Thompson (drums) in a trio and play Wright's arrangements of From this Moment On and other tunes with the Eastman Jazz Ensemble.
Marian McPartland Celebrates Rayburn Wright Wednesday, February 1, in Kilbourn Hall, 26 Gibbs Street, at 8 p.m. $20, $27, and $35. Gold Circle tickets (including prime seating and limited edition live concert CD): $75. Tickets available at the RPO Box Office (108 East Avenue), 454-2100, www.esm.rochester.edu/concerts, and Wegmans Video Depts.