Marion McPartland’s Halcyon Records

by Mary Goljenboom

Singer, songwriter, and producer Madonna has been called the “Queen of Pop” and is one of the best-selling female recording artists of all time. The achievements of her long—and still active—career did not help her when her 2015 single, “Living for Love” was rejected for airplay by BBC Radio 1. The reason? The station is working to attract listeners in the age 15-30 demographic. “The vast majority of people who like Madonna, who like her music now, are over 30 and frankly, we’ve moved on from Madonna,” the head of music for BBC1 explained.

One of the hazards of being a popular artist is the loss of popularity, real or imagined. Music distribution companies and promoters make business decisions based on market popularity. Slow sales can mean lost recording contracts and canceled tours, and put a career in the doldrums—or worse—leaving the artists struggling to get their music out to their fans.

While this scenario is very unlikely to describe Madonna’s future, it does describe the careers of thousands of recording artists of the 20th century, especially mid-century when pop music “moved on,” shifting from big band jazz to rock-and-roll. Some recording artists, including pianist Marian McPartland, dealt with the problem by founding a label and signing themselves.

“Marian McPartland has three strikes against her,” wrote noted jazz critic Leonard Feather, “she’s English, white, and a woman.” In spite of these “liabilities,” McPartland, who moved to the US after World War II, created a career as a jazz soloist, bandleader, composer, writer, radio host, and headed her own record business, Halcyon.

Marian McPartland
Marion McPartland, undated portrait from Betty Lee Hunt Associates

Halcyon Records was formed in 1968. McPartland’s recording contract with Capitol Records had ended and she was looking for alternatives. Twenty years before, she and her husband, cornetist Jimmy McPartland, had started a small record company, Unison, to release their work, so the process of producing and marketing was not entirely new to her.

Right from Halcyon’s start, McPartland had several objectives, according to biographer Clare Hansson: “to record herself with artistic freedom, retain executive control over her recorded output, and to record other musicians who were major jazz talents yet being ignored by record companies.” Retaining control over output was especially important to McPartland. “I think the thing that annoyed me the most was seeing albums recorded for the big companies, which, if they didn’t sell immediately, would be quickly taken out of the catalog,” she told an interviewer in 1978. Artistic control and steady sales mattered more to McPartland.

Initially McPartland had two partners, Sherman Fairchild and Hank O’Neal. According to McPartland biographer Paul de Barros, all three put up $500 to give the company working capital and split management and production duties according to their expertise. Fairchild, a very successful inventor and entrepreneur, provided his home recording studio plus administrative support for the venture and an employee to handle distribution (which was to be primarily mail order). O’Neal engineered the recordings. McPartland selected music, worked on album cover design and often wrote the liner notes. She also came up with the Halcyon name and worked with a friend to design the logo. Halcyon’s first recording, Interplay, featuring McPartland with bassist Linc Millimen, was released in 1969 and was praised by jazz critics. Over the next three years Halcyon released several more albums. The partnership ended with Fairchild’s death and O’Neal forming a new recording company, Chiaroscuro. McPartland became the sole owner of Halcyon.

As every small business owner knows, ownership means responsibility. For McPartland that meant she was now responsible for production duties formerly split with two others, plus all the expenses for creating the albums. She rented recording studios and hired engineers in addition to selecting music and musicians to record. She contracted for the manufacturing of the LPs, usually pressing one thousand copies at a time, and arranged for them to warehoused, often in her own home (she bought a big house in the New York City suburbs for this purpose). She handled publicity—getting review copies to critics and deejays to encourage airplay on radio stations—and even invested in a small amount of advertising, running ads in The New Yorker, in 1976 and 1977. She worked out distribution agreements with record stores in the New York City area and, in later years, in Europe, and made sure that orders from individuals and retail outlets were filled, too, sometimes relying on neighbors to do the work when she was traveling. She was the collection agency when retailers were late with payments. McPartland worked these tasks in around her performances, which themselves were a major source of record sales. On the road, she shipped cartons of records to her destination.

McPartland held true to her objectives. Her solo recordings on Halcyon—some critically acclaimed—documented her growth and artistic maturity. She recorded talented jazz musicians who were being passed over by the big record companies. Halcyon released albums of Marian performing with Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines, Joe Venuti, and her ex-husband, Jimmy McPartland, as well as solo albums by Dave McKenna and Jimmy Rowles. She even re-released on Halcyon music that the McPartlands recorded in 1948 and 1949 for their Unison label, illustrating her commitment to preserve and manage recordings, including the eighteen albums that ultimately made up Halcyon’s catalog. She felt keenly the art that was lost when recordings—old or contemporary—were no longer available. “It makes it all the more important to have a catalog and keep the catalog up. You know, I wouldn’t take anything out. I still get a number of orders on the first of them. They all sell slow and steady all the time,” she said in 1978. Critics lamented that Halcyon did not have broad distribution throughout the country.

Halcyon Records did not make McPartland rich. It was one revenue stream (sometimes a trickle) in a career that included performing, composing, teaching, and (starting in 1979) a radio program, Piano Jazz, broadcast on National Public Radio. McPartland recorded for other labels during the time she was running Halcyon, including three albums for Tony Bennett’s label, Improv (Bennett had co-founded his own label in 1975). Running Halcyon did have its rewards. “Even if I lost lots of money out of my own pocket, always having a new record is a form of publicity. And it’s very satisfying” she explained in a 1974 interview.

Today many Halcyon recordings are available through Concord Music Group. Thanks to electronic media, McPartland’s fans—like Madonna’s—can see music videos on YouTube and hear her music via radio and music streaming services.

Sources
“Madonna Accuses BBC Radio of Ageism After Song Ban” by Daniel Kreps. Rolling Stone, March 14, 2015.

Marian McPartland, Jazz Pianist: An Overview of a Musical Career by Clare Hansson. PhD Thesis, Queensland University of Technology.

Shall We Play That One Together? The Life and Art of Jazz Piano Legend Marian McPartland by Paul de Barros.

“Marian McPartland: A Fine Romance” by Joe Waz. Jazz Forum, Issue #52, 1978

“Jazz Goes Independent” by L. Matlin. SR World, May 18, 1974 pp. 40-41.

Listen to  Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz at the NPR archives


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