A born child prodigy, Marian Portland started playing the piano at the age of three. She is formally trained in both the violin and the piano. Her real name is Margaret Marian Turner. A student of classical music, she got her music education at the Guildhall School of Music in London but her heart was not in studying classical music. She fell in love with the jazz masters including Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson, Mary Lou Williams and the likes. Her family opposed her tendency towards jazz music and tried to keep her grounded at Guildhall.
She went against her family’s wishes and joined a group – Billy Mayerl’s Claviers- a four piano vaudeville ensemble. A majority of the gigs that the group had were performances for the Allied Troops who were fighting in World War II in Europe. On tour while playing in Belgium, she met her future husband and cornetist from Chicago Jimmy McPartland in 1944. They got married a while later at a military base in Germany. They played at their own wedding.
The couple moved to Jimmy’s native country and settled down in Chicago after the war was over. They later shifted residence to Manhattan where they stayed in the same building that the Nordstorn Sisters were staying. She formed a trio there. Marian got a gig at the New York jazz club The Hickory House. For eight years from 1952 to 1960, they were resident group there. During her stint there, she caught the eye of the celebrity audience and all the stars of the time from Broadway and Hollywood would drop in to see her perform. Her regular audience consisted of Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Steve Allen and Oscar Peterson.
Her stint at The Hickory House though was not creatively satisfying for her as she would have liked. In between and after sets, she would quickly move to the nearby clubs where jazz would be played and studied Duke, Basie, Monk, Bud Powell and Dave Brubeck’s music. She said to a query regarding this habit of hers saying “My goal was to hear everything, and play a lot of musicians’ tunes.”
The following years saw Marian records for various record labels. She started her own record label in 1969. The future years also saw her associated with the Concord Jazz label. She launched a radio show in 1964 on WBAI-FM which consisted of guest interviews and recordings. This led to another radio show of hers – Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz on National Public Radio which is still running. It holds the record for being the longest running cultural show on National Public Radio. Some of the programs were released on CD which had her and other guest pianists playing released by Concord Records.
A few artist’s who she has had on her show include Ray Charles, Bill Evans, violinist Stephane Grapelli, Warren Vache and Joe Wilder. Marian is still active despite turning 91. She had a grand birthday bash with a whole of jazz musicians at the Dixxy’s Club-Cola Club. She was joined by guest artists in addition to her own band members – trumpet player Jeremy Pelt, Gary Mazzaroppi and Glenn Davis.
She was known to be excellent at adapting to the stylings of her guests on the show. That apart, she did also record a lot of her own compositions. Her well known songs include Twilight World, There Will Be Other Times, Ambiance and In The days Of Our Love. She claims that she cannot read music though she received formal training in music when she was young. She is proficient at transposing a tune to any key and playing it well. Her last known composition is Portrait of Rachel Carson in honor of environmentalist Rachel Carson on her centennial birth anniversary.
She had knack for remembering a plethora of jazz tunes and play them on the spot. She could also handle almost any other concoction of jazz that she heard or that the person playing with her would be playing. Marian won her first Grammy ever in 2004. She was honored with the Trustees Lifetime Achievement citing her legacy as an educator, writer and radio host. Despite the onslaught of the years, she is as alive as ever performing, playing radio host and composing. She along with Dave Brubeck and Billy Taylor were the first recipients of the annual Jazz Achievement Awards courtesy the no. 1 jazz radio station in the United States. Berklee School of Music inferred upon her an Honorary Doctorate in 2005.