For more than 15 years pianist Marian McPartland has gained fame for hosting “Piano Jazz,” her popular National Public Radio program of interviews and performance; in fact, her reputation as an oral historian now stands equal to–and sometimes threatens to eclipse–her fame as a piano player. It shouldn’t. Beating George Shearing by a year, in 1946 she became the first Britisher to move to the U.S. after mastering jazz. Her husband, Jimmy McPartland, the premier cornetist of the Chicago style of prewar jazz, certainly influenced her early lessons; but within a few years, she had already moved beyond the trad style to craft an elegant and brainy approach to jazz modernism. Her continuing development made her a fascinating figure in the 70s and 80s, when it seemed that each new recording revealed another stylistic twist and her discovery of yet another young composer. Even today, at the age of 75, McPartland combines her rhythmic strength with a rose-petal touch that recalls the music of her contemporary, Hank Jones; the graceful filigrees of her style, forged in the swing era, can’t obscure the iron at the core of her music. Her last album, a tribute to Mary Lou Williams that refocused attention on that pioneering jazzwoman, suggests a way in which McPartland might combine her two fortes of music and history; and from a local perspective her extensive experience with the musicians in her husband’s circle makes her a unique fount of Chicago jazz lore. But with or without such thematic gimmicks, McPartland commands attention for the sheer craftsmanship and the unremitting musicality she brings to her art. Tuesday through next Sunday, May 28, Joe Segal’s Jazz Showcase, Blackstone Hotel, 636 S. Michigan; 427-4846.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/John Abbott.