On the air, she and her guests sat at separate pianos, reminiscing, ad-libbing, and playing duets and solos. She hosted hundreds of jazz professionals, including Ray Brown, Susannah McCorkle and Eddie Palmieri.
Charming, energetic, and always ready for a musical adventure, McPartland was well-suited to the role of live radio host.
Born Margaret Marian Turner in England, she began playing classical piano at the age of 3. At 17, she was accepted to the prestigious Guildhall School of Music. She left in her third year to play piano with a touring vaudeville act — to the chagrin of her parents.
During WWII, while playing for Allied troops with the USO and its British equivalent, she met her husband, Chicago cornetist Jimmy McPartland. He died in 1991.
The couple came to live in New York in 1953, and McPartland landed a gig in a trio at the Hickory House, a bustling jazz hub on 52nd Street where she played intermittently for 10 years, brushing elbows with such greats as Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman.
McPartland recorded more than 50 albums for the Concord Jazz label and played in venues across the country. She also turned her keen ears toward her contemporaries, writing articles and essays that immortalized the people and places of the jazz world in the 1950s and ’60s.
In one essay, included in McPartland’s collected works, “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” (1975), she wrote about her experiences as a woman trying to break into the jazz scene in the ’50s, striving to be taken seriously by male musicians unaccustomed to playing with women.
In 2007, she performed in South Carolina the premiere of her own symphonic work, “A Portrait of Rachel Carson,” inspired by the author’s 1962 environmental book “Silent Spring.”
“I can’t walk. I’m in miserable pain. But at the piano, I don’t feel a thing,” she said during an appearance at a University of South Carolina master class before the performance.
McPartland continued to tour and perform into her 80s, retaining “her fetching and feathery sense of swing, sage economy and deep appreciation for essential melodic purity,” according to a Daily Variety review of a Lincoln Center performance in January 2001.
“McPartland sure knows how to illuminate a line with lean poetic phrasing,” reviewer Robert L. Daniels wrote. “There is wisdom in her fingers.”