McPartland, James Dugald (“Jimmy”)
McPartland, James Dugald (“Jimmy”)
McPartland was one of four children of James McPartland, a sometime boxer and baseball player who was also a music teacher, and his wife, Jeannie Munn, a schoolteacher. His brother Dick was also was a musician. The family was dysfunctional, although sometime after the parents divorced, they reconciled and moved into a somewhat better section of Chicago from that in which they had been living. This was the area served by Austin High School, famed in the history of Chicago jazz. Although young McPartland graduated from John Hay Grammar School, he quit high school after two years and devoted his time to music. Jimmy and Dick had both been taught the violin by their father. As the boys grew older they took up other instruments, with Jimmy playing the cornet by age fifteen, perhaps because it was louder than other instruments used in jazz.
Jimmy and Dick joined with other classmates to form a band. Because the musical group members attended Austin High School, they became known as the Austin High Gang and learned music by listening to records in a restaurant they frequented. For a time they used the name Blue Friars, which included, along with McPartland on cornet, Bud Freeman (tenor sax), Frank Teschemacher (clarinet), Dick McPartland (guitar), and Dave Tough (drums). In 1924 the seventeen-year-old McPartland replaced the famous cornetist Bix Beiderbecke in a jazz group called the Wolverines,
at which time Beiderbecke personally chose a Conn Victor cornet for McPartland. Both instrumentalists played in a clean, lyrical style. From 1926 to 1927, McPartland played with Art Kassel and in late 1927 joined Ben Pollack’s band. The cornetist was busy with freelance recording from the late 1920s into the early 1930s and played with Russ Columbo from 1931 to 1932. Following his stint with Col-umbo he was in bands conducted by Smith Ballew, Harry Reser, and Horace Heidt. In 1935 Jimmy and Dick McPartland led a Chicago band called the Embassy Four. Between 1936 and 1939 Jimmy led another group, under his own name, mainly in Chicago, and returned to New York City for a time in 1941. He primarily directed combos, although he had a “big band” in 1939 and joined Jack Tea-garden from 1941 to 1942.
While associated with Pollack, McPartland met the Williams sisters, Dorothy and Hannah, a song-and-dance team. He married Dorothy in 1930. They had one child and were divorced in 1932.
In the late 1920s, a recording session held by a group known as the McKenzie-Condon Chicagoans made four sides that showed what in the near future would become Chicago-style jazz. The musicians became famous individually and henceforth often worked together. In a typical “Chicago School” performance, the instrumentalists opened the number with a collective improvisation, followed by a series of solos backed by the rhythm section and perhaps other lead instruments, and closed with the musicians jamming together. The nucleus of the Chicagoans was the Austin High Gang, including McPartland on cornet.
Late in 1942 McPartland enlisted in the U.S. Army and engaged in heavy fighting in the 462nd AAA Automatic Weapons Unit during the early days of the Normandy invasion in 1944. He requested a transfer to another unit and became an emcee for a USO camp show. While serving in this capacity in Belgium, he met a British pianist, Margaret Marian Turner. The cornetist had reservations about the abilities of a female jazz pianist, especially one from Britain. However, they got along well and were married in Aachen, Germany, on 3 February 1945. Subsequently McPartland helped his wife with her playing while she influenced his appreciation of more modern forms of jazz.
Following his military discharge, the cornetist performed at the International Jazz Festival in Paris in 1949 and after returning to the United States led a series of groups, some of which included his wife. In 1953 he began appearing regularly in New York City and often played at Nick’s Club. The following year he spent several months leading his own band at New York’s Metropole, visited England, and appeared as a guest on the British Broadcasting Corporation radio. In the 1950s McPartland also took up acting. He performed in a television fantasy, The Magic Horn (1956), about a jazz musician. This resulted in a role in Showboat at the Jones Beach Theatre, and a recorded version of The Music Man (1958). From 1965 to 1966 he joined Tony Parenti at Jimmy Ryan’s Club.
The McPartlands were divorced in 1967; they had no children. (They would remarry two weeks before his death.) However, they had continued to work together even as Marian built a career for herself so that she was not restricted to performing her husband’s style of music. She would later gain fame as the host of the longest-running National Public Radio program, Piano Jazz, which began in 1979.
McPartland continued to be active into the 1980s. He and Marian appeared together at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1978. Their last concert was in 1990 at the University of Chicago. Throughout his career McPartland played the instrument given to him by Bix Beiderbecke and often worked with such musicians as Bud Freeman and other Chicago-style players. The McPartlands, with Jimmy as leader, also performed at the final night of the “new” Eddie Condon’s Club in New York City on 31 July 1985. Condon was perhaps the nation’s foremost publicist of Chicago-style jazz during his lifetime.
Jimmy McPartland and Bud Freeman, who had grown up and performed together for many years, both of whom were members of the Austin High Gang and staunch pro-ponents of Chicago-style jazz, died within two days of each other in 1991. McPartland died from lung cancer in suburban Port Washington, New York. The funeral was held in Chicago with memorial services at St. Peter’s Church in Manhattan and the University of Chicago. He was cremated and his ashes are interred at Arlington Cemetery, Elmhurst, Illinois.
McPartland left his memorabilia to the University of Chicago. There is no full-length biography; Marian McPartland graciously provided information to the author of this article. Chip Deffaa, Voices of the Jazz Age (1990), Max Jones, Talking Jazz (1987), and Whitney Balliett, American Musicians: Fifty-six Portraits in Jazz (1986), contain extensive interview coverage on the cornetist. Ian Carr et il, Jazz, The Rough Guide (1995), and Roger D. Kinkle, The Complete Encyclopedia of Popular Music and Jazz: 1900-1950 (1974), contain biographical and discographical material. William Howland Kenney, Chicago Jazz: A Cultural History, 1904-1930 (1993), puts Chicago jazz in its cultural context. An obituary by John S. Wilson is in ùitNew York(Times (14 Mar. 1991); a eulogy by John McDonough is in Down Beat (May 1991). One recording that clearly delineates some differences between types of jazz is Dixieland Now (Chicago) and Then (New Orleans), featuring Jimmy McPartland’s Chicago Rompers and Paul Barbarin’s New Orleans Stompers, recorded during the 1950s. Another LP recording, The McPartlands: Live at the Monticello (1972), is an excellent example of his music. Other discs are listed in Kinkle and Carr, et al. A highly recommended videotape is Jazz at the Top: Remembering Bix Beiderbecke, with Jimmy McPartland, Marian McPartland, Joe Venuti, and Their Friends (1976).
Barrett G. Potter