Jazz journalists received the brunt of Oscar Peterson's criticism when he received an important award at the third annual gala dinner of the International Association for Jazz Education in Toronto early this year.
He called aspiring jazz critics -- as well as unknowledgeable ones -- a "peril" to the jazz community. At least several musicians in the audience immediately agreed with Peterson after the event.
Dr. Peterson received the IAJE President's Award at the lavish dinner, hosted by Grammy and Emmy Award winner Nancy Wilson, at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel.
After listening to his attack on jazz journalists, Wilson told me she agreed with Peterson's comments that the jazz writer is a peril in the industry. "How do they know what they know? It bothers me. They're not my peers. It doesn't matter what they think. I don't read any of that! I don't understand what their criteria is when they say something is good or bad," Ms. Wilson said."
Jimmy Heath, who received one of the Jazz Masters awards from the NEA at the conference, said, I agree with Oscar. In the '50s, everybody went to hear everybody all the time. Now audiences may not come out if the people read that a critic doesn't like the music." Heath and his wife Mona said they think critics "set themselves up as experts and tell the audience what to think." The saxophonist said he wouldn't mind critics "if they didn't keep people from hearing the music. They may like it!"
Phil Nimmons, director emeritus of jazz studies at the University of Toronto, presented the prestigious President's award this year to Peterson at the gala dinner. In his introduction, Nimmons told Peterson: "After some personal sacrifices, now life has given you comfort." He called the famed pianist a "treasure. The kingdom of jazz has been enhanced by your presence."
As an aside, Nimmons said he didn't know any person "who has the talent of practical joking as Oscar does."
Nimmons recalled that when he and his wife were expecting their first child many years ago, Peterson jokingly ordered one of the club waitresses to bring "little things" to their table -- a nipple, bottles, diapers, and a training bra.
"Underneath that countenance is a little boy full of impishness," Nimmons said.
Peterson was given the microphone. There was no joking when the subject of his acceptance remarks soon turned to jazz journalism. Peterson was dead serious. He lumped jazz journalism along with the other "impediments" he cited that the industry and jazz community face.
It was evident that the world-renowned Canadian jazz pianist still carries a grudge against a journalist he did not name regarding "factual errors" in an article that appeared years earlier, on another occasion when Peterson received an award. He took time in his acceptance remarks in Toronto to describe what he called this "misrepresentation" against him. Among other things, this inaccurate journalist didn't ascribe to Peterson the right number of Down Beat magazine awards he'd won.
Sitting at the front of the large room in his wheelchair, Peterson talked about the "inane" reporting of this journalist. Even the number of Down Beat awards ascribed to him was wrong in the report, he said. "Where in my home should I hang the other eleven?" That received a lot of laughs from the audience.
But Peterson turned serious. "I'm not being cavalier about this misrepresentation. This has been plaguing me for years."
"Jazz has (also) been stricken with 'wanna-be jazz critics' -- 'w.b.j.c.s,' I call them," Peterson continued.
Peterson read a list of whom he termed "exceptions" to the "wanna-bes." They included well-known names such as long-time Village Voice writer Nat Hentoff, author and reviewer Dan Morgenstern of Rutgers University, Newark, N.J., Benny Green (not the pianist), and his autobiographer Richard Palmer, of England.
He called jazz articles that are "unsubstantiated" -- as well as poor jazz reviews or jazz columns -- a huge peril to the jazz community.
Peterson cited further exceptions -- "a few gifted reviewers, writers, and jazz crusaders, such as the late Leonard Feather . . . Geoff Chapman, etcetera."
With the exception of these writers, he said, "Jazz has suffered from inane and unsubstantiated so-called jazz reviews."
The other "perils" to jazz musicians, he said, included the dwindling number of venues -- and what he termed "selling-out" to commercialism. He tackled these first two "perils" before venting most of his emotional energy on jazz journalists.
As to these perils, he said, "Aspiring young players no longer have the same lounges available that we had." He lamented jazz musicians "selling-out," rather than using their "honest talent."
"Regardless of these impediments, I am duly honored to receive this award," said Peterson.
He said that it is "with humility and love" that he has chosen to make performing and teaching jazz his life's work. He gave tribute to such musical influences as Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, Hank Jones, Coleman Hawkins, Bill Evans, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, "and many, many others."
"Even if I have to crawl to the piano, I will continue to make contributions to this (jazz) music." A standing ovation followed his remarks.
I made several calls to Peterson's Toronto office to obtain a copy of the acceptance speech he read. At first it looked like a copy was forthcoming. Finally, the answer was negative. His assistant said his answer to whether he wanted her to fax copy was: "I said what I had to say."
Peterson's involvement at the IAJE conference also included sitting for a public interview, conducted with his co-writer of his autobiography, Richard Palmer. He held a book and CD signing.
The fourth annual gala dinner kicked off the 31st annual IAJE conference Jan. 21-25 in New York City in 2003.