Marian McPartland, 95, died last night at her home in Port Washington, Long Island. The news brought a beat of silence. As if there were no music. Then came the sound of a coronet singing out a golden brass smiling invitation, "Now won't you come along with me?" Husband Jimmy McPartland calling her up to heaven's stage where those who made music that lasts forever are all waiting for young Margaret Marian Turner McPartland. She'll be on piano.
In Art Kane's iconic "A Great Day In Harlem," a picture that caught most of jazz royalty together one morning in 1958, it's hard at first to make out the faces. But it's not hard to see Marian McPartland. She's in the front row. Wearing the white dress. Fifty-seven musicians in that picture. Three of them are women.
"Sometimes," Marian would quietly reflect in those British tones that somehow wove together amusement, elegance and a towering inner strength, "sometimes I'd hear people say with wonder, 'Why you play just like a man!'"
Then she'd chuckle rip into something like John Coltrane's "Red Planet," and there would be no questions about things like men or women. Marian McPartland had spoken. And there was just the music.
She had a connection to Chicago because husband Jimmy was as Chicago as could be. So there were friends and family here. The McPartland's backyard being the site of some roaring good music with whoever was coming through town. Lots of stories there.
Then for years she'd spend the winter holidays with a gig at Chicago's Jazz Showcase.
Those snowy December nights made warm inside as she would gather a bunch of friends in that tiny room and make music that could make even the most frozen soul sing with the joy of being right here, right now. Music that told stories explaining pretty much everything without ever using words. If you were in the room, she was your friend. Whether she knew your name or not, she was your friend.
Once, finding myself standing next to her at the bar, not wanting to gush, and knowing I only got one question, I asked her, "So what was it like playing at The Hickory House when Duke Ellington would walk in?" She stopped for a moment, and I could see in her eyes, that she really gave the question some thought. Then her eyes got huge and she said, "I was terrified."
With her "Piano Jazz" program on NPR, Marian McPartland, like Studs Terkel, made conversation into art. Her music will last forever.
And when the show starts up tonight in heaven, it will be like a tiny, warm bar in Chicago as the snow comes down outside. Marian McPartland will be on piano. And everyone will be there.
Because Marian McPartland has a whole lot of friends.