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Marian McPartland

John Robert Brown

Autumn in New York, that great ballad of urban longing, describes for me the best season to visit Manhattan. Vernon Duke (born in Russia) wrote the song in 1934 to express his feelings about his city of Gershwin, Ellington and Goodman. By then, the canyons of steel that Duke describes already included the Chrysler Building and the Empire State. And, inspiring Duke's thrill of first nighting, Harlem danced, Broadway sang, and Manhattan was the location of the centre of the jazz universe.

And of course, Manhattan still retains its jazz importance. So, in New York this autumn, once I had spent the afternoon (and plenty of money) in Patelson's legendary sheet music shop on W 56th near Carnegie Hall, explored the new transparent Cube Apple store on Fifth Avenue at 59th, and had dined simply at Oscar's American Brasserie in the Waldorf Astoria, the evening had arrived. Time to swing.

Relatively new to Manahattan, Dizzy's Club Coca Cola is at Columbus Circle, at Broadway and 60th. On entering the main club room one is immediately impressed by the view of the city, seen shimmering below through the immense picture window behind the bandstand. How many jazz clubs can there be in the world where the outlookfrom the windows is worth writing about? Being on the fifth Floor, and located at the south-west corner of Columbus Circle, one watches the musicians and simultaneously faces out to see the dusk creeping across Central Park, lights twinkling in the background skyscrapers. Had Vernon Duke been able to see that sight, he would have been moved to write another verse or two to his song, I'm sure.

The club is nicely full as McPartland's regular rhythm section musicians Gary Mazzaroppi, bass, and Glenn Davis, drums, take the stage, before the pianist emerges on the arm of an escort assisting her to her bench at the Steinway. McPartland, born near Slough in March, 1918, and a recent winner of a DownBeat Lifetime Achievement Award, is clearly having mobility problems these days. But her mind, speech (and fingers) are still impressively bright. After friendly words to the audience (she still speaks with a familiar southern English accent), and a little more help to make her comfortable at the piano, McPartland's set begins with her own composition, Twilight World.

Her playing is relaxed and gentle, in a style reminiscent of Bill Evans. Strangely, McPartland uses her left foot to operate the sustaining pedal. To swap feet in this way is tricky, rather like a car driver using her left foot to work the accelerator. Doubtless McPartland does this to cope with physical problems - but be assured that the music doesn't suffer. We are hearing a mature and seemingly effortless performance, the results of a lifetime of intelligent work.

McPartland has prepared a set list with a variety of keys and tempi in mind. We are taken from the Db of Twilight World to Gb for Little Girl Blue, and then to Love You Madly, which begins in F and modulates to G. Another McPartland original follows: In the Days of Our Love, a minor key ballad blessed with lyrics by Peggy Lee, which has been recorded by Cleo Laine. The request for this was made from the audience by Miss Daryl Sherman, a kindly supportive gesture from one distinguished New York musician to another. Next comes an excursion into three-four for a blues in F, called Threnody ('For Mary Lou Williams'). In the rhythm section, Mazaroppi is a strong, supportive, double-bassist, a New York pro who looks far too young to be the veteran of all those associations with Tal Farlow, Jim Hall, Les Paul, Stan Getz, Joe Morello and Lionel Hampton. Drummer Glenn Davis remains a model of quiet and unobtrusive discretion throughout.

New Orleans being very much on the minds of Americans in the wake of the August 2005 floods, McPartland's choice of Hoagy Carmichael's celebration of the Crescent City was an appropriate following choice. Noticeable was the skillful way in which the pianist brought out the Spanish tinge that Carmichael wrote into the original, an inflection (upward parallel minor-second shifts, redolent of Spanish guitar music) that is lost in so many interpretations of New Orleans.

The set closed with Ellington's (the other Duke) Things Ain't What They Used to Be, which was followed by much warm-hearted applause.

Both Daryl Sherman and Dan Morgenstern shared my table. We all wanted to congratulate Marian McPartland on her reassuring and poised performance. Daryl went first to her dressing room to pave the way, but the news came back that Marian was tired. We abandonded the idea, collected our coats, and headed into the glittering crowds.

Here, instead, are my own congratulations. As Vernon Duke himself said, I Like the Likes of You.

This article first appeared in Jazz Review, issue number 79. Reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Richard Cook.
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