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Legend at the mike

Special to The Times

There they are, seated side by side, each at a grand piano, a musical odd couple if there ever was one. Pop songwriter Burt Bacharach and jazz pianist Marian McPartland are obviously having a ball, bantering back and forth, pausing occasionally to turn to their keyboards and toss out an illustrative musical phrase or two.

“Here’s one I’ve always liked,” says McPartland, playing the melody from Bacharach’s “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.”

As she concludes, Bacharach jokes about the various ways musicians finish the offbeat ending line. “I’ve actually heard them carry it over to the next bar,” he says, singing, “I’ll ... never fall in love -- a -- gain.”

This exchange between two luminaries in their respective fields isn’t taking place on a bright concert stage or in one of L.A.'s A-list recording studios, but in a modest studio in a Compton mini-mall.

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McPartland, in town for a run at the Jazz Bakery, is taking advantage of a few extra days in Los Angeles to record two shows for her long-running NPR radio series “Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz.” Bacharach is the subject, and the session is taking place in Compton because of its proximity to Los Angeles International Airport.

Bacharach, 76, leans toward her as she gently queries him about his life and music. When she mentions a period in the late ‘50s when he served as Marlene Dietrich’s musical director, the memories come bursting through.

“It was an exciting way to see the world,” says Bacharach. “But it wasn’t real exciting musically. After a year or two with Marlene, I started having these urban hits with the Shirelles, Chuck Jackson, Dionne Warwick. But in the meantime, I’m conducting orchestras while she’s singing....

“I can remember Quincy Jones came backstage at the Olympia Theatre in Paris and he said, ‘Man, what are you doing?’ And I said, ‘I’m seeing the world, Quincy.’ ” McPartland listens intently as Bacharach spins out the full story. A small, elegantly dressed, carefully coiffed woman whose strong hands on the keyboard belie her 86 years, she is an adept interviewer, seeming to know precisely when to allow her subjects to ramble on, precisely when to steer them into more illuminating areas, and when the time has come to set aside the talk and start up the piano playing.

Her ease is not surprising. “Piano Jazz” is now approaching its 26th year on the air, and producer Shari Hutchinson notes that there have been more than 500 installments, making it NPR’s longest-running cultural program. The Peabody Award-winning show airs in Los Angeles on KCLU-FM (88.3) Saturdays at 2 p.m. and Sundays at 8 p.m. The Bacharach segments probably will air in April.

The show has been an unlikely but rewarding byway for the England-born McPartland, a highly visible jazz pianist for more than half a century. Her first prominent gigs were with her husband, cornetist Jimmy McPartland, whom she married in the mid-'40s. But she soon moved away from the Dixieland orientation of his music and into bebop. After relocating to the U.S., she was booked for a two-week stint at New York City’s Hickory House and wound up remaining there for the next decade.

McPartland’s style is characterized by a rich sense of harmony and a flowing way with a melody, underscored by a brisk rhythmic sense. In addition to her “Piano Jazz” appearances, many of which have been released on CD by Concord Records, she has recorded more than 50 albums under her own name.

A longtime resident of New York City, she was divorced from Jimmy McPartland in 1970 but remarried him a few weeks before his death in 1991.

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When she was initially approached about doing “Piano Jazz,” McPartland viewed it as a short-term project.

“We started in 1978 with people like Billy Taylor and Hazel Scott,” recalls McPartland. “And since that time I’ve had just about everybody I wanted except two or three people I want and haven’t yet been able to get: Keith Jarrett, who doesn’t want to do any show, Stevie Wonder and Woody Allen. But I’m convinced I’ll get them eventually.”

It’s unlikely that any of those names would have appeared on “Piano Jazz” in the early years of its existence, when the orientation of the producers was distinctly toward mainstream jazz.

“I can remember how upset the original producer was when I suggested we get Herbie Hancock on,” McPartland says. “Can you believe that? But after he passed away and Shari took over, everything changed. I told her, ‘You know, we don’t just have to have pianists. We can have Dizzy Gillespie and Gary Burton too, and even banjo player Bela Fleck. Eventually it finally got around to, ‘Why do we have to have someone play? We can get Tony Bennett in and he can sing and I can play.’ And so we did.”

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She also has had pop artists such as Bruce Hornsby, and Donald Fagen and Walter Becker of Steely Dan, on the show. Those selections have not always pleased some of the more conservative NPR affiliates, which have chosen not to broadcast programs they view as too pop-oriented.

“The funny thing is that it cuts both ways,” says McPartland. “Because there are listeners out there who get furious about stations not playing shows with people like Hornsby and the boys from Steely Dan, and write letters to complain about it.”

“This was great fun,” Bacharach says after the session. “I never played two-piano style in my life. And Marian’s amazing. She has such taste, such a lyric sense. I’ve always thought until today that maybe my music wasn’t right for a jazz audience. But she opened my eyes.”

McPartland, standing nearby, demurs, insisting on crediting the songs.

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“No,” says Bacharach. “It’s you. You really showed me how my songs can work as jazz. When you played ‘A House Is Not a Home’ and ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’ it was incredible. And if you can make ‘I’ll Never Fall in Love Again’ sound good, I can only imagine what you might do with ‘What’s New, Pussycat?’ ”

McPartland accepts Bacharach’s praise gracefully. A few days after the recording, she adds the session to her long list of musical memories: “I just love him -- what a fun recording that was.”

She views “Piano Jazz” as an “amazing education” and one of the highlights of her career.

“Whether it’s been learning tunes that I never knew, that I had to do because the guest played them, or things that I wanted to play. Whether it’s finding out about people, like finding out that Donald Fagen was such an Ellington fan, it’s all been great fun. I just hope we can do another 500 before I’m finished.”

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