Thursday, August 22, 2013

`Keep It in a Soft Continuingness'

Fifteen years ago, on a sunny spring day in Schenectady, N.Y., I spent the afternoon in a jazz club with Marian McPartland, who chatted while she oversaw the tuning of the club’s new grand piano. In conversation as in piano-tuning, her standards were severe and exacting, and she wasn’t shy about correcting work she judged inadequate. McPartland would be performing that evening on the new Steinway, and it had to be perfect. I asked some lame questions and they, too, needed work. When I told her I had especially enjoyed the “Piano Jazz” interview she had done with Joe Bushkin, a pianist of little interest to me otherwise, she said: “Not every artist is interesting and not every interesting person is an artist.” McPartland was at once charming, tart and a little imperious. I found her, as Whitney Balliett had in his profile “The Key of D is Daffodil Yellow” (Alec Wilder and His Friends, 1974), “impeccably got up.” Her hair, makeup and clothes were perfect. She had recently turned eighty and did not want to discuss her age – a coy vanity that, combined with the formality of her appearance, I found endearing. My wife and I had just gotten engaged to be married and I brought a promotional photograph of McPartland for her to sign. She wrote: “To Sylvia. Best of luck. Marian McPartland.” 

In 1987, Oxford University Press published All in Good Time, a collection of profiles and essays, some of which started as liner notes, that McPartland had written between 1960 and 1983. Retitled Marian McPartland's Jazz World, the book was republished in 2003 by the University of Illinois Press, with a new postscript added by the author to each piece. One of the best is “Bill Evans, Genius,” in which she writes of Evans’ appearance on her radio show shortly before his death: “How could I know that within a year Bill would have died from the effects of his lifelong heroin addiction? Seeing him there that afternoon, so completely together, full of jokes and good humor, one could never guess that he had returned to his old habit.” Evans died at age fifty-one on Sept. 15, 1980. McPartland died on Tuesday at age ninety-five. Three days earlier the poet John Hollander had died at age eighty-three. In “By Heart,” the first poem in Picture Window (2003), Hollander writes: 

“We grasp the world by ear, by heart, by head,
And keep it in a soft continuingness
That we first learned to get by soul, or something.” 

[See Terry Teachout and Steve Cerra on McPartland and her music. Cerra reprints the Balliett profile.]


Tony said...

Ah, the Van Dyke.

MMc said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
MMc said...

Been playing her the past couple of days, Grateful I got to see/hear her once. Thanks for the post.

Don said...

Not sure it would be to your liking, but a Welsh writer named Owen Martell wrote a novel in the last year or two called "Intermission" based on Bill Evans. It was a pretty good read.