KE & LH Celebrate Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz 30th Anniversary

A radio show—a public radio show—celebrating its 30th Anniversary is always important news. But this birthday happened in grand (piano) style at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola, where the festivities honored Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz, probably the most popular show on NPR and certainly the best known. Piano Jazz is a personal affair.
Ms. McP with producer Sherry Hutchinson asks artists, young, old, veterans and neophytes to sit along side her while she plumbs their depths and accepts their challenges. At Dizzy’s this April night there was some of that but mostly it was the guests taking turns at the twin Steinways.

There were two star-laden sets, lasting two-and-a-half hours each. The second set began an hour late. As host Todd Barkan apologized at the outset of set 2: “It will be well worth your wait.”

Was it ever. The queue for the second set was the longest I’ve ever seen at a Jazz at a Lincoln Center event—stretching from the entrance to the club, beyond the elevators, across the main corridor of the lobby, to near the entrance to the Ertegun Hall of Fame. It sounds long because it was.

The reason for the crowd was love and respect for the host of the radio show who stayed for both sets playing solos and duets as well as accompanying singers and a saxophonist. The 91 year-old [see my OctoJAZZarians profile here].

Ms. McPartland not only knows and can recall at will most of the Great American Songbook, but she also knows the more recent jazz standards, and she’s not too shabby a composer in her own right with lyrics by Alec Wilder and Johnny Mercer to name but a pair. Dizzy’s hosted her 90th birthday last year.

The guests at Dizzy’s were culled from her radio shows: [in order of appearance] Bill Charlap, Renee Rosnes, separately and together, Grady Tate with John DiMartino, who later doubled as music director for Karrin Allyson, who was in turn accompanied by Ms. McP, Joanne Brackeen solo and with Taylor Eigsti, Randy Weston, Kurt Elling with Laurence Hobgood, John Pizzarelli with John Bunch, and a Mulgrew Miller and Kenny Barron duet. And that was only the first set.

In addition to what one might expect from such an affair, the music was jazz fare such as Ellington. Strayhorn, and Coltrane to Golden Age standards. There were also originals by Brackeen, Weston, Elling, and McPartland.

Leading off the second set, which I squeezed into, was Kenny Werner who presented an elaborate abstract which fed into Bernstein’s “Somewhere” from West Side Story. Dena DeRose sang a couple from the piano hypnotizing us as she went. Cedar Walton reinvented Strays’ “Lush Life.” Daryl Sherman, a favorite friend of Marian’s, interestingly intertwined “I’m Shadowing You” with “Shadowland.” One of Arturo O’Farrill’s two offerings was a reharmonization of Lucuona’s “Siboney.” The much churchified Cyrus Chestnut opted to play the second piano, the one not usually in the room, a larger-sounding, warmer-toned Steinway. I wish more had played that one as it seemed to these ears woodier.

Alto saxophonist Grace Kelly played Tizol’s “Caravan” accompanied by Marian, whom you could not drag off her stage. She played two more duets with Bunch and one with Allyson (both first set holdovers).

Geri Allen’s improvisation was nothing short of dynamic in its intensity and shading. Eigsti came back for a solo turn showing his bent for stride on a truly astounding version of “Stompin’ at the Savoy.” Weston closed with a personal request from Marian, his “Little Niles,” more poignant now that his son Azzedine, for whom it was written, is gone.

The show was recorded in its entirety as usual by South Carolina Public Television for radio broadcast after editing on the 31st year of National Public Radio’s “Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz.” By the way, the Newark outlet, WBGO, is also celebrating 30 years. Kudos.