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Top pianists honor a jazz pioneer 

The Kodak Hall stage will be occupied by seven excellent pianists the night of Friday, March 23: Monty Alexander, Renee Rosnes, Bill Charlap, Harold Danko, Bill Dobbins, Tony Caramia, and Gary Versace. But another great pianist, who is no longer with us, will be on everyone's mind.

Marian McPartland (who lived from 1918 to 2013) had musical connections stretching over the decades, from Duke Ellington through Bill Evans to Elvis Costello, and had a special relationship with the Eastman School of Music. She will be remembered in "Eastman Presents: Marian McPartland Centennial Celebration."

In 1971 the late arranger Rayburn Wright invited McPartland to Eastman for an "Arranger's Holiday" concert, the first of her many appearances at the school. Her ties with the institution were still going strong in the early-2000's when McPartland introduced emerging piano greats like Jason Moran and Eldar at Kilbourn Hall concerts in the "Marian McPartland/Eastman Jazz Series." And she was among the headliners at the Rochester International Jazz Festival in 2004.

McPartland not only donated some of her archives to the school, she also gave Eastman her personal piano, which will be played in Friday night's concert. Accompanying some of the performers will be bassist Jeff Campbell and drummer Rich Thompson, Eastman faculty members who played with McPartland. Former Democrat & Chronicle film and jazz writer Jack Garner will emcee the event.

Born in England, McPartland studied classical music but fell in love with jazz listening to the BBC. She crossed the Atlantic in the mid-1940's, playing in her then-husband Jimmy McPartland's band. When she stepped out to lead her own trio in 1951, she was greeted by prominent jazz critic Leonard Feather's pronouncement: "Oh, she'll never make it: she's English, white and a woman."

McPartland not only enjoyed an extraordinary career performing; she became a leading jazz ambassador with her National Public Radio show, "Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz," which featured just about every notable jazz pianist and many more instrumentalists since its debut in 1978. McPartland stepped down as host in 2011, but the show continues to this day.

CITY recently spoke to Renee Rosnes, one of Friday evening's performers, about McPartland's legacy and her own career in jazz. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

CITY: What did Marian McPartland mean to you?

Renee Rosnes: She loomed large for me. She was one of my heroes and I loved her. Just the idea of a woman coming from the time period that she came from, being able to succeed and do what she did, not only in terms of performing but what she did with her radio show.

Just the type of woman she was, how she was so thoroughly Marian, meant a lot to me. It was inspiring to look up to her and feel like wow, she hung in there and knew and played with the best of them.

She was a brilliant traditional player but I always loved how adventurous she was. On "Piano Jazz" she would often improvise a free jazz duet with her guests.

Yes. The very first time I was on her show, when I was in my 20's, toward the end of the show she asked me if she could do a little musical portrait of me. Of course I'd heard her do that numerous times in the past and I was flattered. She went about playing this very spritely, happy piece.

I remember sitting there being amused. I thought it was wonderful, a great moment for me to be included in that particular legacy of her on-the-spot compositions — musical portraits of people as she called them.

How did you get started in jazz?

I was introduced to jazz by a band director in high school who recruited me for the band because he knew I played classical piano. That's when I first heard jazz and started to fall in love with it. I went to the University of Toronto for a couple of years and even there I was in the classical performance program. It wasn't till the mid-1980's I decided I would come to New York. I was able to go because I'd been awarded a Canada Council for the Arts grant.

I had the full intention of returning to Canada, but toward the end of the first year I started to work. I realized that I loved being there and could feel that I was being challenged and improving and meeting so many young players of like mind. It was a big turn-on and I didn't want to leave.

And then, of course, I never left. I was lucky in a way because I came at a time when there were still legends around, like Joe Henderson and J.J. Johnson, who were open to playing with younger people such as myself.

You played in the bands of those legends and also Wayne Shorter, Bobby Hutcherson, and James Moody. How did that affect you?

All of my experiences with the masters have had huge impacts on me. They've all contributed to my musical growth and to the way I present my own music. One thing I've learned from all of them, especially Wayne Shorter and Bobby Hutcherson, is keep reaching for it, the idea of just trusting in yourself, trusting in your bandmates. Be courageous enough to be exploratory and also vulnerable enough to let the music be very intimate.

Sometimes I feel like you don't hear a lot of intimacy in today's music. I have such great memories of playing a ballad with Bobby Hutcherson and feeling like it was so personal. He allowed himself to take time and just let it grow and really go for it.

Both Wayne and Bobby had a child-like feeling about them. They'd get excited like it's new every time you pick up the instrument. It's new every time you play the song. To have the courage to be yourself as much as possible — that kind of philosophy has pervaded the way I think about playing jazz.

The last time you were on Marian's "Piano Jazz" show, you were joined by your husband, Bill Charlap, another top pianist who will be playing Friday night. Do you have two pianos at home?

Yes, we have two Steinway grand pianos at our house. We'll be playing together for the whole show in Rochester. We have a nice chemistry between us, musically speaking. We have a great time. We just have fun.



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