Marian McPartland: The Lady Plays

From Goldsby’s book, Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl

Excerpt courtesy of Bass Lion Publishing

Here’s your coffee!” says Nina. “Rise and shine!” It’s nine in the morning and Nina Lesowitz, my publisher’s indefatigable publicist, has run to a Madison Avenue coffee shop to pick up breakfast for the two of us. I’ve come to town to tape a Piano Girl segment for Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz on NPR. The invitation to appear on Ms. McPartland’s program came directly from the queen of jazz piano herself, and I’m honored, humbled, and very nervous. I flew from Germany to New York two days ago. Nina arrived yesterday from San Francisco. She has jet lag coming from one direction; I have it from the other. I figure between the two of us we have one complete brain.

During the long flight from Frankfurt to JFK, an elderly Indian woman wearing a bright pink sari sat next to me. Hardly more than fifty pounds, she had a face like a walnut and miniscule eyes with fluttering lashes. She sat in lotus position for eight hours without saying a word. Every so often she would hand me a little plastic container of coffee cream to open for her. She didn’t smile or speak or acknowledge me in any other way—she would pass the cream to me and wait with one shriveled hand gently extended until I peeled off the aluminum top and passed it back. We went through this ritual at least six times. She poured her cream into numerous cups of tea, which she didn’t drink. I suspected she was meditating, so I didn’t interrupt her, because maybe, just maybe, she was keeping the plane in the sky. After we landed she stayed in her seat, legs crossed, palms resting on knees. I nodded farewell, stepped over her, and proceeded to the baggage claim, where I saw her once again, this time in a wheelchair pushed by an airline attendant. She was still in lotus position.

Today’s taping will begin at noon. I have three hours to calm down and align my chakras, if I have them. I should have taken notes from my Indian friend.

My publisher is graciously funding this trip, but we’re on a shoestring budget, so Nina and I are sharing a room. We’re staying in the three-star Hotel Wolcott on Thirty-first Street. The hotel advertises itself as one of New York’s “best kept hotel bargain secrets.” The Wolcott’s lobby—decorated in a pseudo-Baroque style with furniture donated by someone’s Great Aunt Edna—teems with Eastern European tourists and American backpackers stuffing their bags with the free birthday-cake-sized muffins offered at the breakfast trough each morning. Nina and I have vowed to avoid the muffins and urban backpackers whenever possible.

Hotel Wolcott is a fine establishment, but the two of us, self-proclaimed travel princesses, are used to places with heated towels, L’Occitane de Provence toiletries, and working elevators. Low-budget or not, we’re determined to have fun, so we cheerfully climb the four flights of steps several times each day, swearing we can feel ourselves slimming down. We hang the towels on the radiator and buy our own overpriced toiletries. The hotel must be trying to attract visiting NBA teams with the height of its bathroom mirrors—at least two meters up the wall. I put a little stool in the bathroom so we can boost ourselves up over the sink to put on makeup. Every night we examine the mattresses for signs of bedbugs, a growing problem in New York City hotels. We’ve decided Hotel Wolcott is unusually clean for one of these budget places. Still, I’ve been spraying tea-tree oil on the bed linens, just in case.

“Hey, look at this,” says Nina. She’s sipping coffee and browsing through the hotel brochure. “We can book our next press event downstairs at the Buddy Holly Conference Center. He stayed here in 1958. Go figure. Let’s see, the room features, uh, a table and eight chairs. And lights. They have lights.”

I’m still in bed, wondering if I should drink the coffee or not drink the coffee. I need it to wake up, but my nerves are shot and the caffeine certainly won’t help.

Awake and nervous is better than calm and comatose. I drink the coffee.

“God, I hate this,” I say.


“I’m nervous. I hate feeling this way. You should have let me sleep until twenty minutes before the taping. Then I wouldn’t have to spend the next three hours feeling sick.”

“Yeah, but then you wouldn’t have time to do your hair.”

“Nina, it’s radio. Hair doesn’t matter.”

“Hair always matters. We might want to take photos. I have to get a shot of you with Marian! Last time we were together we met, like, Bill Clinton. Hello? Who knows what will happen today? I’ve heard Beyoncé is in town. We want to look nice. And it will take a while to get ready in this place. The shower needs twenty minutes to warm up—I timed it yesterday. I turned the shower on, went out for coffee, and when I came back twenty minutes later it was finally warm. And I think the hairdryer is from 1959.”

“Maybe it was Buddy Holly’s hair dryer.”

“Eat a bagel, you’ll feel better.”

It’s true. New York City bagels always make me feel better.

“I don’t think they had hair dryers in 1959.”

“How do you think Buddy Holly got his hair to do that? It doesn’t matter—you’re going to be fine!” Nina says. “Once you’re dressed we’ll go shopping for accessories.”


“Junk jewelry. We’re in the junk-jewelry district—the world capital for junk jewelry. God, I love New York.”

“Nina, I’ve got to concentrate on the show, I’m freaked out, and you want me to go shopping for jewelry an hour before the session?”

“It’s a perfect solution,” she says. “You can’t shop and be nervous at the same time. Besides, you’ve been practicing for, what, thirty-five years? If you’re not ready now, you’ll never be ready.”

“Right,” I say. She has a point. I’m happy Nina is here. She distracts me; she makes me laugh. She’s keeping the plane in the sky.

I follow Nina into the nearest junk-jewelry store.

“They say you need a wholesale license to shop here, but just grab a basket and act like you know what you’re doing,” Nina says.

“I’m good at that,” I say.

“Look! Emeralds! These earrings would be perfect with that black sweater you wore last night. They’re so adorable.”

I need fake emerald earrings like I need a dogsled, but I throw them in my basket and wander around the store. Garlands of fake diamonds and other dangling bits of glitz hang from the velvet-covered walls. The fluorescent lights bounce off the plastic gems and mirrors and send reflections back and forth across the shop. I feel as if I’m trapped inside a disco ball. I double-check my backpack to make sure I’ve remembered the music charts I’ve written out for Marian—we’re scheduled to play three duets in addition to my four solo pieces. The show, which is recorded months in advance, will be edited to fit the one-hour NPR time slot.

“Look, Robin!” says Nina. “A tiara with feathers!”

I grab a rhinestone bracelet and a couple of rings for my daughter.

“What time is it, Nina? Time to go?”

“Nope. We still have thirty minutes. Look over there at those darling African beads. Very cool.”

My cell phone rings. It’s John calling from Germany to wish me luck. It’s five-thirty in the morning there.

“You’ll be fine,” he says. “Remember to breathe. Where are you now?”

“I’m in a junk-jewelry store called Nick’s Picks. Nina is trying to keep me distracted.”

“Good. Listen to her. She knows what she’s doing. Better that you’re in a junk-jewelry store than, say, Bergdorf Goodman.”

I’ve been a fan of Marian’s show for years. Piano Jazz is the longest-running cultural program on National Public Radio. The NPR affiliate in Berlin airs it every week, so for the past decade I’ve been listening on Saturday evenings when I’m driving home from my piano job. Marian plays with guts but never relinquishes her femininity. She connects the gap between sensitivity and strength, playing with conviction and vulnerability, wit and intelligence, innocence and maturity. Her relaxed interview style is not unlike her playing. She has been in the USA for most of her adult life, yet she maintains an air of English graciousness—treating each guest like a long-lost best friend, using her warm and smoky voice to invite the listener into her living room for a little music and a cocktail or two.

“She has played with, like, everyone,” says Nina as she scoops up a handful of fake ruby hair ornaments. “Oscar Peterson, George Shearing, Bill Evans, and well, the list goes on and on. She even had Clint Eastwood on the show. You know, he plays the piano.”

Nina has done her publicist homework.

“Oh, Nina, stop. This is making me more nervous.”


“That’s okay.”


“Alicia Keys and Tony Bennett and, what’s his name? The blind guy—you know who I mean.”


“No, the other one.”


“Oh yeah, Ray Charles. I love him! He was on the show, too.”

“Okay, that’s enough.”


“That’s okay.”


“Dizzy Gillespie and Willie Nelson were on. Hank Jones and Norah Jones . . .”

“What, no Tom Jones?”

“I don’t think so, at least not yet. All the big stars have been on Marian’s show. Even, like, Eartha Kitt and Keith Jarrett.”

“Not at the same time, I hope.”

“No, I don’t think so. That opera singer, Renée Fleming. God, she’s gorgeous! She was on the show. And what’s his name . . . God, this jet lag is destroying my memory—the ‘Take Five’ guy?

“Dave Brubeck.”

“Yeah, that’s it. He was on. And now, you. So, you want to go in this next store? Wouldn’t it be great to meet Tom Jones? Look! They have lots of pins shaped like butterflies. I love butterflies.”

When Marian called me in Germany last month I was so excited I almost dropped the telephone. She had read Piano Girl and, having logged eight years playing with her trio at New York City’s Hickory House, related to my tales of unruly customers, obnoxious managers, stalkers, perverts, and piano gig mishaps. We talked for almost an hour about music and family and raising kids in Europe. She was hip and funny and genuinely interested in my double life as a musician and mom.

A week after our conversation I received a formal letter from her asking me to be a guest on Piano Jazz. I ran my hands over her elegant stationery—how odd it is to receive a real letter these days—and gave it a place of honor in my Piano Girl scrapbook. Then, feeling a little sad, I called Marian’s home number.

“Thank you so much for the invitation,” I said. “But I can’t be on your show. I’m not a jazz musician. Not even close.”

“Oh, that’s okay,” she said. “It’s all just music. Time for something different. We’ll play a few tunes and talk about your book. It will be fun! I can’t wait!”

Nina and I arrive at Manhattan Beach studio five minutes before noon. My parents, who have come in from Pittsburgh for the taping, are in the control room. I haven’t seen them for almost a year, and it feels odd to have our reunion in front of the technicians. Nina takes charge and introduces me to Shari Hutchinson, the Piano Jazz producer. Good producers are efficient and keep things moving along. Great producers have vision. Shari’s handshake is firm, her manner respectful and friendly, her voice warm and confident. I can tell she knows her craft.

“Marian will be here in a moment,” says Shari. “She’s freshening up a bit.”

For some reason everyone is eating soup. Mom hugs me and continues chatting with the young man at the mixing board. I think they might be exchanging recipes.

Dad says, “How are you doing? You okay?” He knows I get nervous before important piano events. “Do you need something to eat?”

“No thanks, Dad.”

“How about some tea?”

“Okay.” He pours the tea for me and hands me a little plastic container of cream. I hand it back to him. He opens it for me. I think this may be a sign. Of what, I don’t know. Maybe my chakras are aligning.

I check out the two Baldwin grand pianos sitting side by side behind the glass partition.

“Why don’t you check out the piano?” says Shari. “You’ll be playing the one on the right. We’ll get our levels while you’re doing that.”

“Sure,” I say.

“By the way,” Shari says. “Marion is sensitive about pictures, so no photos, please.”

“Of course,” I say. “I understand. But, uh, you might want to mention this to Nina. She has the camera, and she tends to be shutter happy.”

“Will do,” says Shari.

I head into the studio. It’s so peaceful in here. This might be the first real stillness I’ve experienced since leaving home—even at their most quiet there’s a constant drone on the city’s streets. I can see the others behind the glass—they look like silent-movie actors, laughing and pointing at who knows what. I pull the charts out of my backpack and a rope of pink pearls spills onto the floor and makes a big racket. The engineer lifts his head. I can’t hear him, but he can obviously hear me. I arrange the charts on the piano and stuff the jewelry back inside the backpack.

I’m a recording rookie compared to my husband and my father, both of whom make a living in the recording studio. For me it’s still an adventure. John says a recording is exactly that—a record of what a musician sounds like during a particular phase of her life. This soothes me. I don’t have to sound better than I am. I would, however, like to avoid sounding worse.

I look into the control room. Busy, busy, busy. I wonder if anyone would notice if I left and returned to Nick’s Picks. I put my hands on the keys. The first moments at an unfamiliar piano are always awkward.

The piano is in tune. The action is good. Fine.

The studio door clicks behind me, and there she is.

“Robin!” she says. “It’s great to have you here! What were you playing just now? Very nice!” She is wearing a spiffy dark-blue pantsuit and a silky blouse with a bow at the neck. She hugs me.

“It’s an honor to meet you,” I say. Any woman who has managed to make a living as a musician, especially a jazz musician, blows me away. Marian grew up during a time when female jazz musicians were a rarity. In a way they still are.

Shari stands with her hand on Marian’s elbow. She leads her to the piano, helps her get situated, then politely excuses herself. I’m surprised by Marian’s physical frailness. Her radio voice has always been so strong, her laughter so robust, that I’ve been tricked into thinking she’s decades younger than her ninety years.

“It takes me a few minutes to get comfortable,” she says. “I need to have a hip replacement, but who has time for that? I want to go on tour in the fall. My agent has a nice string of gigs lined up.”

“Wow,” I say. “It’s wonderful you’re still touring so much.”

“Yes!” she says. “Things are good.”

We sit on our individual piano benches, our bodies turned to face each other while we’re taping the interview sections of the program.

I hand Marian the charts I’ve brought with me.

“Oh!” she says, tossing the music onto the table between us. “These mean nothing to me. Never did care much for reading notes! I play by ear. Let’s figure out what songs we should do as a duet and what key, and off we’ll go.”

I’m a little thrown by this, since I’ve spent weeks preparing these arrangements. But it’s her show, so I put the charts away and grab a pencil. Together we decide who takes which chorus for each of the songs. I’m scribbling notes, but she doesn’t write down a thing.

“Trust me,” she says. “This will work out. I hate planning too much.”

“Maybe that’s the secret to a happy life,” I say.

“Might be,” she says. “It works for me.”

I vow that my next fifty years will more spontaneous.

“Let’s try a chorus of ‘Night and Day,’” she says. “I’ll play the melody on the head.” She turns and faces the piano. And then, before my eyes, this sweet English rose of a grandmother turns into a jazz cat. Get down, Marian. “One, two, one, two three, four . . .”

We play a couple of choruses. I’m having fun.

“Good!” she says. “But let’s not rehearse too much.”

“You know, Marian,” I say. “This is tricky for me. I’m used to playing solo. It’s pretty much all I’ve ever done.”

“Well then, these duets will be a premiere!”

“Yeah. Hell of a way to try something for the first time.” We both laugh.

“Excuse me, ladies,” says Shari from the control room. “Please save the chitchat for the actual taping. Right now we’re just testing levels, and I don’t want to lose spontaneity.”

Rehearsal seems to be a bad word in this place.

Marian waves her hand dismissively toward the control room and says, “Alright, alright,” but keeps talking to me, asking about John, my kids, my music. By the time we start taping I’m having so much fun I’ve completely forgotten why I’m here.

Marian conducts the entire show—several hours of taping—without consulting a single note of music or any kind of written prompt about my book. We play three standard tunes together: “Charade,” “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” and “Night and Day.” I’ve practiced my two-piano arrangements for months, but Marian, with her ears leading the way, jumps right in and nails each piece on the first take. I play an original solo piece that I’ve dedicated to her—one that I’ve been working on for at least six weeks—and she returns the favor by playing a piece for me that she composes on the spot. She plays, I play, we talk and talk, we play together, then repeat the whole cycle with different topics and different tunes. Her joy rubs off on me. Look at her go—here’s a ninety-year-old woman playing piano the way she wants to. She has grown into her music and stayed young because of it. She listens, she responds, she encourages the rest of us to keep going. Marian doesn’t need magic, luck, or soothing words to keep her plane in the sky, because she’s the pilot. If there’s a better role model for a musician, I don’t know who it is.

We play the last chord of the last song, and Marian says, “Well, that was fun!”

Everyone in the control room applauds, and Marian hugs me.

“I think we should take some pictures,” she says.

“Oh, that would be great!” I try to get Nina’s attention in the control room, but she is flitting about and exchanging business cards with everyone. Marian pulls out a compact and touches up her lipstick. Then she grabs a can of Final Net hair spray and a small brush and cranks her hair. I realize I’ve forgotten to bring my makeup—it’s back at Hotel Wolcott, on the shelf underneath the NBA makeup mirror. I’ve got a rope of plastic pearls, three rhinestone bangle bracelets, fake emerald earrings and a belt covered in sequins, but no lipstick.

Nina flies through the studio door with her camera and chokes on the hair-spray fumes. Marian keeps spraying.

“Well,” says Marian, taking one last look in her compact. “I’m ready for the photos.”

“But Marion,” says Shari from the control room. “Don’t you want to fix your hair?”

“I just did,” says Marian, rolling her eyes.

“And it looks fabulous,” says Nina, sneezing in the cloud of Final Net.

“Oh, yes, I see now, your hair does look fabulous,” says Shari.

“See?” Nina whispers to me. “Hair always counts. You want to borrow my hairbrush?”

Shari escorts my parents into the studio and introduces them to Marian. I feel like I’m at a wedding reception. Marian embraces them and has her photo taken with the three of us.

“Well, Bob,” she says to my dad. “You should be proud of your daughter. She played her ass off.”

“Yes, Marian, she did.”

“You played your ass off, too,” I say to Marian. Her hand is on my waist, and she gives me a conspiratorial squeeze.

Marian’s driver whisks her away, and I stay at the studio to record several solo holiday pieces for an NPR Piano Jazz Christmas CD. My piano has slipped out of tune, so I slide over to Marian’s. I imagine, just for a moment, what it’s like to be her.

Several weeks later I perform a reading and concert in the rotunda at Steinway Hall. Marian, who has her own concert on the same night, sends flowers. From one Piano Girl to another, the card reads. Wish I could be there.


Listen to Marian McPartland’s interview with Robin on NPR Piano Jazz.