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Piano legend McPartland: Cool jazz still hot

Marian McPartland, host of NPR's "Piano Jazz," will discuss the show and perform at this year's Monterey Jazz Festival.
Monterey Jazz Festival
Arts, Culture and Entertainment
Monterey (California)

(CNN) -- Marian McPartland, the legendary jazz pianist and host of National Public Radio's "Piano Jazz," returns this year to the Monterey Jazz Festival. She'll perform, and she'll also join panel discussions with musicians such as Clark Terry and Bill Charlap and jazz enthusiast Clint Eastwood.

McPartland started playing the piano at age 3 in England, and later toured with a vaudeville act. She played for Allied troops during World War II and then moved with her husband, Chicago cornetist Jimmy McPartland, to the United States, where they both established long-running music careers.

In 1979 she began broadcasting "Piano Jazz," a Peabody Award-winning radio show. Over the past 25 years, her guests have included everyone from Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Vaughan to artists who defy any categorization, such as Willie Nelson and Elvis Costello.

McPartland, who continues to record, tour, lecture and teach year-round at 86, talked with about jazz and the Monterey Jazz Festival.

CNN: What are some of the events that you're anticipating at this year's Monterey Jazz Festival?

McPARTLAND: I'm really looking forward to some of the ones I'm involved in. I'm playing some duets with Bill Charlap, Jason Moran and Lynne Arriale. The rest, I don't really know until I get there.

CNN: What do you think draws people to jazz?

McPARTLAND: It's wonderful, creative music and the only thing like it in America or in any country for that matter. It's the most innovative and creative form of music we have, I think.

CNN: How did you get interested in jazz?

McPARTLAND: Listening to the music on the BBC [in England]. I've been playing by ear since I was 3 years old. ... I've played piano all my life. And I've played jazz as long as I could hear any. And I heard plenty in England before I came over here to America.

CNN: From your experiences touring and lecturing, what's the level of interest in jazz these days?

McPARTLAND: Interest is getting higher. And they can carry on so many festivals [today]. I've played other festival dates and the people are very, very enthusiastic and there are so many of them. I think the audience is getting better, if anything.

CNN: What's the international reputation of jazz?

McPARTLAND: I think people in Europe have always had more interest in jazz than people in America, to tell you the truth. I've always been interested in jazz all my life. I'm from England. ... I've played many festivals all over Europe, in many towns, and the people are tremendously excited. I've played in Germany, Istanbul, Italy, everywhere -- and the enthusiasm is very high.

CNN: How has jazz changed over the years?

McPARTLAND: I don't know if jazz itself has really changed. People have changed. Rock came on the scene and that kind of helped us to get ourselves together to fight against rock. ... To have a festival like Monterey, I think, shows a great deal of enthusiasm from the people as well as the people who put the concert together every year.

CNN: Do you still see as much creativity and innovation compared with, say, the 1940s and 1950s?

McPARTLAND: Oh, definitely as much and maybe more. There are new people and new ideas ... getting involved all the time. New trends all the time, new kinds of jazz. Like years ago, you didn't hear about [Grammy Award-winning composer and saxophonist] Wayne Shorter. That's just one example of a newer trend.

CNN: Who have been your favorite guests on "Piano Jazz"?

McPARTLAND: I've probably had just about everybody on "Piano Jazz." I've been on the air for 25 years. We've had newer people -- people who are more contemporary like Steely Dan -- and then we've had some of the older people like George Shearing and Tony Bennett.

We've had singers, saxophone players, Bruce Hornsby, trumpet players, Clark Terry, flute players, everybody. ... But Bill Evans is my favorite because he is just the greatest. If you ask me why I like Bill Evans, if you ever heard his music, you would know. I think just about every musician or person who loves music -- like [recent "Piano Jazz" guest] Clint Eastwood -- would brighten at the mention of Bill Evans' name. But I prefer everything. ... It runs the gamut.

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