Wynton plays for Marian McPortland 90th birthday

Wednesday, March 19, 2008, Marian McPartland celebrated her 90th birthday in a style befitting the “Grande Dame of Piano Jazz” with a little help from friends including Norah Jones and Wynton Marsalis at Jazz at Lincoln Center.
“Getting up here is really a job,” quipped McPartland, who has been slowed by arthritis in her legs and is recovering from a fractured pelvis, after being assisted onstage. But the years fell away once her hands touched the keyboard.

Wynton Marsalis duets with Marian McPartland at JALC
Wynton Marsalis duets with Marian McPartland at JALC

She started both sets Wednesday night – on the eve of her actual birthday – with the traditional jazz tune “Royal Garden Blues,” which she used to play in the band led by her late husband, cornetist Jimmy McPartland. The British-born pianist met the Chicago jazzman when they were entertaining troops in Belgium in 1944 and he introduced his war bride to American jazz audiences in the late 1940s.

McPartland also played selections from her latest album, Twilight World, showcasing her stylistic range and encyclopedic approach to the jazz repertoire – from solo piano versions of Burt Bacharach’s “Alfie” and the obscure Alec Wilder ballad “Blackberry Winter” to avant-gardist Ornette Coleman’s twisted blues “Turn Around,” performed with her trio.

Jones, who returned to her jazz roots by singing “Blame It on My Youth,” “The Nearness of You,” and “Yesterdays,” recalled she was 13 when she first heard the pianist at a Dallas jazz festival and spent many hours during her high school years listening to bootleg tapes of McPartland’s Piano Jazz, the longest-running cultural show on National Public Radio at 29 years and counting.

“Now thinking back [that] seems cool, but at the time . . . you killed my social life,” Jones joked. “But happy birthday and I’m so happy to be here and I love you madly.”

Marsalis let his trumpet do the talking as he swung his way through Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are” accompanied by McPartland’s trio.

Afterward, the pianist remarked: “I first played with him when he was 15. . . . He was as good then as he is now, maybe not as cheeky.”

Singer Karrin Allyson highlighted McPartland’s talents as a composer by performing several of the pianist’s originals, including “Twilight World” and “There’ll Be Other Times.”

Other birthday bash guests included violinist Regina Carter, singer Jeanie Bryson, and several generations of jazz pianists – Jason Moran, Bill Charlap and Kenny Barron – who filled in when McPartland needed a break.

The audience shared slices of her piano-shaped cake and her NPR colleagues presented her with a “Marian McPuppet” in her image, which McPartland joked had “the wrong shade of lipstick.”

“Each week Marian touches our hearts and delights our souls, and the truth is that you assure us that even when wars rage and banks collapse and husbands cheat, there is still music and beauty in the world,” said NPR vice president Margaret Low Smith.

After Allyson and trumpeter Jeremy Pelt teamed with McPartland’s trio for a rousing finale on the blues “Centerpiece,” the audience serenaded the pianist with a chorus of “Happy Birthday” accompanied by the birthday girl herself.

More photos from the event on JALC web site

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