Marian McPartland, the NPR host of “Piano Jazz” and the subject of Paul de Barros’ biography “Shall We Play That One Together?”, lived through not only a lot of jazz history, but a lot of world history as well. She lived and worked in England, France and the U.S., as well as a lot of other countries. Quite a life for a proper English schoolgirl!
I’m going to suggest some books that relate both to Marian’s life and to her work.
The first book is really a series of books called “Dance to the Music of Time” by English author Anthony Powell (rhymes with Lowell). A twelve-volume cycle! I admit, I have only read the first one, but it was great. Powell’s masterwork starts out in 1914, right at the outbreak of World War I, and follows the fortunes and misfortunes of a series of schoolboys, and continues on into the 1970s. It’s a devastating portrait of class-conscious English society; the long-gone rules it lived by, the division between the aristocracy and everyone else, and other strictures that were pretty much blown away by the cataclysm of World War II. As it did with Marian McPartland, the war changed everything for a lot of the English. Lots of serious misbehaving, and fascinating character sketches; probably the most fascinating is that of the boy Widmerpool, a schoolboy of mediocre talents who’s pretty much detested by his fellow students at boarding school, who goes to become a politician of ravening ambition. Friends and lovers meet, drift apart and then re-encounter one another in some of the most surprising places.
These books were made into a great four-part BBC television series that I actually did get to the end of.
Well, enough of England. Let’s hop back across the ocean to America, where the jazz was really happening.
One work of popular history that dovetails with the rise of jazz in this country is “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition” by Daniel Okrent. This 2010 book documents the exceedingly weird Prohibition era, when the government tried to ban a behavior practiced by a large percentage of the country – namely drinking alcohol.
What does this have to do with music? Plenty. Okrent quotes the writer Willa Cather, who commented on the way life changed in the 1920s – “Nobody stays at home anymore.” A good chunk of the population that didn’t stay home would up in speakeasies, illegal drinking establishments that people flocked to. As they drank, they wanted to dance and listen to music, either lives and on records, and that’s w here jazz came in. These joints provided employment and a venue for a lot of emerging jazz musicians. Though by the time Marian McPartland arrived in America, Prohibition was over, her hard-drinking husband Jimmy got plenty of work in the joints of Chicago, as well as a lot of “inns’ in the wilds of Wisconsin that ran on a similar combination of music and drinking. This topic comes up in two Ken Burns PBS series, both his “Jazz” multipart series and “Prohibition,” which is based in part on Okrent’s book.
One jazz biography not to miss is the wonderful “Pops,” the 2009 biography of Louis Armstrong by Terry Teachout.
As you know from reading Marian McPartland’s biography, she and her husband Jimmy crossed paths with Armstrong, the great trumpeter and vocalists, many times over the years (as they did with so many other jazz greats).
“Pops” is one of the most readable music biographies ever. Armstrong literally revolutized music and was the first black entertainer many white Americans fully embraced. Armstrong took a lot of flack about this from fellow black musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, who were angry about segregation in this country and felt that Armstrong didn’t take a big enough stand.
Teachout gets to the core of Armstrong’s world view; he genuinely liked people, regardless of race. He was born and raised in multicultural New Orleans; he was an ebullient personality who, in his own way, dismantled a lot of racial barriers, intregrating both the airways and hotels in a very segregated era. He was, simply, loved, and that had a powerful unifying influences for Americans.
Do I get to mention a television series here? I’m gonna. You can get Ken Burns’ great public television series “Jazz” on any streaming video service. As I was reading through Paul’s books I went back and viewed portions of Burns’ series. It was a multimedia experience, reading about all the jazz greats the McPartlands rubbed shoulders with, and then going back to the Burns programs and seeing their faces and hearing their music.
Finally, I want to mention a 2004 book that chronicles one of the true geniuses of jazz, “So What: The Life of Miles Davis” by John Szwed. Davis was unique in his genius, Like a lot of other jazz musicians, he was awash in contradictions; he was the son of middle class parents , but he embraced the hard life of a jazz musician, and had the same problems with drugs and alcohol that many jazz musicians struggled with, including Marian’s husband Jimmy McPartland. : Szwed writes that Davis “he told every woman he became involved with that music always came first, before family, children, lovers, friends.” This book vividly illustrates that compulsion, whether you’re a listener, a musician or just an interested reader.