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Biographers compete for subjects who have the courtesy to die young, but jazz pianist Marian McPartland, born in Slough in 1918, has declined to oblige. After a transatlantic career in which she rubbed elbows – sometimes contentiously – with Duke Ellington, Mary Lou Williams and Thelonious Monk, McPartland was the longtime hostess, until 2011, of Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz on America’s National Public Radio, a programme which highlighted her ‘knack’, as Barros describes it, of ‘quietly promoting herself even as she promoted others’. Barros is a stringent critic of McPartland’s recordings, which, starting in the 1940s, would sometimes kowtow to the genteel ‘lady pianist’ genre by adding harp and the like, but offers sincere praise for her more heartfelt jazzy efforts, such as 1956’s The Marian McPartland Trio (Capitol), a ‘truly swinging affair that has held up so well’. Readers will marvel at how McPartland herself managed to hold up through a sometimes abusive on-off marriage with the American cornet player Jimmy McPartland, a decade-long love affair with a visually impaired drummer, intermittent alcohol and amphetamine abuse and other desiderata of lives in jazz. Even osteoporosis, leading to repeated bone fractures in recent years, did not deter McPartland from her stern work ethic, inculcated by an engineer father from Enfield, Middlesex. Believing that ‘only death’ was an excuse for missing a gig, though she grew snappier with assistants and generally harder to handle – as Barros wryly recounts – McPartland remained an exuberant bird of paradise of the jazz keyboard.

BENJAMIN IVRY Read the full review on Agora Classica


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