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Gifted pianist who spanned generationsby James Hale
Copyright © 2007 James Hale
Diminished in his later years by a stroke and confined to a wheelchair because of arthritis, Oscar Peterson remained a top concert draw until the end. He died at his home in suburban Toronto of kidney failure at the age of 82.
Oscar Emmanuel Peterson was born on Montreal's Delisle Street, in the heart of the city's rough St. Henri district. The fourth of five children, he received early piano training from his father, Daniel -- a no-nonsense Canadian Pacific Railway porter who was determined that his children would acquire an appreciation for the arts -- and then from his sister, Daisy. Lessons with Lou Hooper and Hungarian-born classical pianist Paul de Marky followed, and by 15 Peterson was proficient enough to have his own 15-minute radio program on Montreal's CKAC radio.
Strongly influenced by Teddy Wilson, James P. Johnson and Art Tatum, Peterson had an exceptionally good musical ear and extraordinarily quick hands. But, more than anything, he had an unshakeable work ethic that had been drilled into him by his father.
Initially, however, Peterson took playing lightly: he would read comic books instead of practicing, coasting on his perfect pitch. That changed in his early teens when he fell in love with jazz.
"As soon as I found out that I could find a more direct, expressive avenue in projecting my own musical ideas through jazz, that's when I decided to go that way," he said.
When Peterson asked to quit high school to concentrate on his burgeoning talent, his father said he would only allow it if Oscar would promise to strive to be the best jazz pianist in the world. Second best was not an option. His father's attitude of confidence and perseverance appeared to take hold in Oscar's life: the pianist refused to be beaten down by the racism he suffered in his youth, and instead went on to fight against it publicly in Canada and around the world.
Montreal was a hotbed for musical talent in the 1940s. As well as being a premier touring stop for all the top performers of the era, including Duke Ellington and Count Basie, the city had a wealth of established homegrown talent, most notably pianist Steep Wade. And while Peterson was by far the most promising musician of his generation, he was not the only jazz prodigy; one of his bandmates in the Montreal High School Victory Serenaders was budding trumpeter Maynard Ferguson. In 1944, both young men joined a popular dance band led by trumpeter Johnny Holmes, which also featured Ferguson's brother Percy. While the Holmes orchestra offered steady work at society functions around Montreal, Peterson's sights were fixed on becoming a featured performer.
By 20, he was playing regularly on CBC national radio, and recording for the Canadian arm of RCA Victor. Although his musical influences had grown to include more contemporary players, it was the flash and propulsive power of boogie-woogie that his record producers wanted; so his 30-odd 78 r.p.m. recordings of the day did not reflect the music he was making in regular live appearances with his trio at the Alberta Lounge. Featuring bassist Ozzie Roberts and drummer Clarence Jones (later replaced by guitarist Bernard Johnson), Peterson's trio was one of the city's most popular attractions in the late-'40s. A visit to the Alberta became a must for touring jazz musicians, and Peterson was heard by Ellington, Basie and most of their sidemen.
Bandleader Jimmie Lunceford offered him a spot in his popular orchestra, and Basie urged him to move to New York City. Peterson resisted, but the word of his talent was beginning to spread. He even managed to garner enough votes to place 28th among pianists in Down Beat's 1946 readers poll -- no small feat for a regional performer from outside the U.S.
Saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, Ellington and his arranger Billy Strayhorn were among his biggest boosters, and all three recommended Peterson to producer Norman Granz. When he first heard Peterson, playing one of his boogie-woogie features on record, Granz was let down. Why was this young man playing the music of an earlier generation?
But Granz got another chance to be impressed. Visiting Montreal to make arrangements for an Artie Shaw concert, Granz was headed for the airport in a taxi when Peterson's weekly radio broadcast from the Alberta Lounge hit the air. Granz directed the taxi driver to take him downtown, and a months-long courtship of Peterson began.
What Granz wanted was for Peterson to join his all-star touring show, Jazz At The Philharmonic (JATP). But the 23-year-old believed he wasn't ready to perform with the likes of saxophonist Lester Young and drummer Buddy Rich. It was the summer of 1949 before Granz prevailed, and then only because of a ruse he concocted to allow Mr. Peterson to appear without prior notice.
To avoid having to file immigration papers for Peterson's debut at New York City's Carnegie Hall, Granz decided to have the pianist play unannounced. Peterson was seated on an aisle, and at the beginning of the second set on September 18, 1949, Granz told the audience that he had a surprise guest from Canada. Accompanied by bassist Ray Brown, Peterson played three songs and convinced the audience that he was indeed, in Granz's words, "one of the coming giants of jazz."
Peterson became one of JATP's touring stars, and although he stayed with the show for only two years, his professional relationship with Granz continued until 1990. In addition to working with JATP in 1950 and '51, Peterson toured with Brown under Granz's auspices. The following year, Peterson returned to a trio setting with the addition of drummer Charlie Smith, who was soon replaced by guitarist Irving Ashby. It was in this trio format, accompanied by bass and either drums or guitar, that Peterson would make most of his best recordings.
Guitarist Barney Kessel replaced Ashby, but it was Kessel's replacement by Texas guitarist Herb Ellis in 1953 that solidified the trio's lineup. Together, Peterson, Brown and Ellis formed one of the most evenly-matched and musically rich trios in jazz history. Over five years they toured widely and recorded dozens of albums, including an outstanding performance at the 1956 Stratford Festival.
Ellis left the trio in 1958, but his replacement by drummer Ed Thigpen didn't diminish Peterson's drawing power. The new trio remained intact, touring and recording frequently, until Brown settled in California in 1965. In addition to creating music together, Peterson, Thigpen and Brown -- along with Butch Watanabe and Phil Nimmons -- were partners in the short-lived Advanced School of Contemporary Music in Toronto. From 1960 to '63, the school was an influential training ground for young musicians. Following its closure, Peterson and Nimmons co-founded the jazz program at the Banff Centre -- which, under the direction of people like Kenny Wheeler, Dave Holland and Dave Douglas, has grown into one of the world's most respected summer workshops.
The 1960s were a difficult decade for jazz musicians and, like many others, Peterson found it hard to keep a regular band together. He turned increasingly to composition, and in 1963 completed "Canadiana Suite" with movements for a number of the country's regions and cities. His powerful "Hymn To Freedom" became a popular anthem for civil rights workers in the American South.
Although he continued to tour and record with bassists George Mraz and Sam Jones, and drummers Louis Hayes and Bobby Durham, it wasn't until Granz formed his Pablo label in 1972 that Peterson returned to the prominence he had enjoyed in the '50s. In addition to an exceptional new trio with young Danish bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen and guitarist Joe Pass, Pablo showcased Peterson's mature prowess with other, older giants such as Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry and Roy Eldridge. Granz also recorded the pianist with big bands and strings.
Throughout his career, assessments of Peterson have been complicated because he loomed so large over the jazz world, and his unmatched virtuosity led him to be revered and excoriated in equal measure.
"He is at once too easily dismissed and too easily worshipped," Burnett James wrote in 1961. "He is opulently gifted, but he is either too lazy or too flush with popular acclaim to make the best of his endowments."
Miles Davis once said, "Oscar makes me sick, because he copies everybody. He even had to learn to play the blues."
While fans raved about the clarity of Peterson's playing -- his ability to use both his left and right hands and to swing no matter how intricate his playing became -- his critics accused him of playing like a robot, mixing elements with skill but little artistry.
"The problem," Peterson said of his critics when he was 74, "is that they don't play. They're not musicians. They haven't got the faintest idea what it takes."
In the 1980s, Peterson began to take life easier, preferring solo recitals to small-group tours, and he began to garner the kind of accolades rarely given to jazz performers. He was made an officer of the Order of Canada in 1973, and promoted to companion in 1984 -- a rare feat for any artist. The Berklee College of Music named a scholarship in his honor and he was inducted into several halls of fame. In his hometown, Montreal's Concordia University named a recital hall in his honor. In 1993, Peterson was named the recipient of the prestigious Glenn Gould Prize. But the award ceremony was bittersweet. Just before returning to Toronto to receive the honor, Peterson suffered a stroke, and the left hand that once struck fear in other pianists was paralysed.
Two years of intensive therapy returned Peterson to the stage, although only with the use of his right hand. Always a heavyset man, he now used a wheelchair for public appearances. He tired quickly, but never on the bandstand.
In his later years, Peterson reflected several times on his life, participating with his niece Sylvia Sweeney in a television biography called Oscar Peterson: The Will To Swing and in a radio documentary, In The Key Of Oscar.
He is survived by his fourth wife, Kelly Green, and seven children.^ Top
Editor of Jazzhouse.org.