Picture Perfect Jazz Pianist Marian Mcpartland Headlines Another Great Week In The Palouse

Marian McPartland juggled the phones at her New York City home last Monday, answering a reporter’s questions on one line and fielding calls from Esquire magazine on the other.

“Have you heard about `A Great Day in Harlem’?” the jazz pianist asked, coming back to the reporter. “It’s a new jazz documentary. It’s really a terrific movie.”

McPartland speaks in the enthusiastic, clipped cadences familiar to listeners of her weekly public radio show, “Piano Jazz.” British born and bred, she came to the United States in 1946, and New York still blends unpredictably with Kent in her halting yet melodic style of speech.

“A Great Day in Harlem,” she explains, takes its name from a famous 1957 picture taken in Harlem.

“I guess I’m extra-interested (in the film) because I was in that photograph. Actually, we all got this call to show up on Lennox Avenue at 10 o’clock for a photo.”

Some 58 of New York’s finest musicians showed up: “Dizzie Gillespie, Lester Young, Count Basie, Oscar Pettiford … ” McPartland’s voice trailed off as she recalled the glittering roster.

As it turned out, Monday evening was the night of a big Esquire bash for the film, and McPartland was a guest of honor along with others in the picture who are still alive.

This week, McPartland, who says she is busier than she has ever been in her 50-year career, will travel to the Palouse to star in the Thursday night concert at the University of Idaho’s Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival.

McPartland is making her second appearance in Moscow. She played Spokane once, a Met Theater benefit for radio station KPBX.

“I love coming out there,” she said with a laugh. “The only bad part is getting there; it’s like going to Europe, only worse.”

But McPartland can’t complain about the travel: At least one festival performer will make the trip from Europe - pianist Romano Mussolini. The son of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini is scheduled to arrive from Rome in time for his Wednesday night appearance.

The annual four-day festival begins Wednesday with the Pepsi International World Jazz Concert and concludes Saturday night with the traditional performance of Lionel Hampton’s New York Big Band.

Over four nights, some of the most prominent jazz musicians of the last 50 years will appear: Ray Brown, Bobby Durham, Herb Ellis, Hank Jones, Bud Shank, Claudio Roditi, Arturo Sandoval, George Shearing, Art Farmer, Benny Golson, Al Grey, Jon Hendricks, Wallace Roney, Bill Watrous, Benny Green - and, of course, the King of the Vibes, Lionel Hampton himself.

Ironically, the show’s biggest name is better known for his pop stylings than his jazz leanings: Saturday night, singer Lou Rawls returns to the show to front the big Hampton band.

All the main-stage shows take place in the cavernous Kibbie Dome, which is sectioned off for the festival.

But even though the headliners get most of the press, the festival is really built on the performances of thousands of students in mini-concerts scattered all over the UI campus.

The festival was organized 27 years ago to give student jazz groups - including big bands, ensembles and vocal groups - a chance to be heard and adjudicated by professionals. Traditionally, a name act was hired to play a show-closing concert on Saturday evening.

But when Hampton appeared with his big band in 1984 and was invited back the next year, a new era began. Under the guidance of Hampton and his manager, Bill Titone, the festival has grown in both quantity and quality.

“It’s the only world-class jazz festival the world doesn’t know about,” said the late critic Leonard Feather in 1993.

Its stature has grown accordingly, and this year, student groups will come from as far away as Bloomington, Ind.

“Believe it or not, we came two years ago … and we had an amazing time,” said Janice Stockhouse, director of bands at Bloomington High School North.

The school will send 22 students and two adults, but before they came the first time, Stockhouse was skeptical.

“You gotta admit, (Idaho) doesn’t have much identity with jazz,” she said last week. “It’s not necessarily some place you want to spend a lot of money on airfare to take kids to a jazz festival.”

But she became a believer. The evening concerts were “like being in heaven, especially for the students who are serious musicians - you can’t go anyplace and hear this many stars play live.”

There were two unexpected bonuses last time North appeared: Three students won their solo competitions and took home new drums, keyboards and a guitar - and they got to go skiing at Silver Mountain.

“You can imagine,” Stockhouse said. “In Indiana, we don’t realize how beautiful your part of the country is.”

MEMO: See sidebar that ran with this story under the headline: Big festival performances

See sidebar that ran with this story under the headline: Big festival performances

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