In 1943, Marian Turner was a young pianist playing USO shows in her native England when she met Jimmy McPartland, a cornetist and protege of Bix Beiderbecke. They married and moved to the United States, where they immersed themselves in America’s jazz scene, and Marian McPartland went on to become a respected pianist. She had a regular gig at New York’s Hickory House for many years, and recorded dozens of critically acclaimed albums.
Despite that success, it’s not McPartland’s musical career, but her radio career that she’s best known for today. Her weekly NPR series, “Piano Jazz,” one of public radio’s most successful programs, turns 30 next year. On the show, she has interviewed and played with a staggering list of musical giants, legends like Dave Brubeck, Dizzy Gillespie, Rosemary Clooney, Bill Evans, and Ray Charles. At the same time, her show is always ready to welcome emerging artists. The welcome she extends to all musicians has made McPartland a part of jazz history.
A world-class player herself, McPartland’s musician’s point of view and calm demeanor easily disarms guests, who play and talk in a manner that would be unlikely in a different setting. It’s more a conversation than an interview, and in the end, often more revealing. Now nearly 90, McPartland still performs, and will be making an appearance at Tanglewood Music Festival in Lenox, Massachusetts, as part of its annual jazz roster at the end of the month. There, she’ll tape a live version of her radio show using the same format she uses in the studio, albeit with far better scenery. Four years in the running, the Tanglewood taping could be called an annual show, even a residency. Weather permitting, it’s the perfect place for the worldly host to play.
“It’s such a lovely date, I better not even talk about the weather,” says McPartland, laughing. “We’ve had wonderful weather every year.”
The reserved pianist took a moment to talk by phone from her home outside New York. In slow, carefully measured responses, she took the role of interviewee.
“Well, what we do at Tanglewood is like ‘Piano Jazz’ [but] outdoors,” she explains. “We do the same set up, and we have a guest. This year, we’re having Renee Rosnes and I’m looking forward to it. We’re really pleased to be able to do it four years in a row. It’s getting to be like a ‘happening.’”
McPartland has fond memories of the series. “We’ve had so many good ones,’’ she says. “At Tanglewood, we couldn’t do better than Norah Jones. She was so wonderful, and there were so many people there, I don’t know where they put them all. They were straight out on the grass for miles.”
Perhaps it’s a testament to McPartland’s serene air that she’s never suffered any divas or difficult shows in the radio show’s long run. “I’ve been very lucky,” she says. “All the guests have pretty much been friends of mine, or people that I know, and we haven’t had a bad time ever.”
McPartland says she and her staff are discussing ways to celebrate as the 30-year milestone approaches. It was an event she never thought would happen. When “Piano Jazz” was launched in June 1978, McPartland recalls, she had no clue the show would have such longevity. “I remember thinking at the time, ‘Oh well, this will probably last a few months. I might as well enjoy it.’”
The Tanglewood Jazz Festival runs from August 31 through September 2.
(617) 266-1492; www.tanglewoodjazzfestival.com.