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 Monday, 30 November 2015
Oscar Peterson 1925-2007 PDF Print
Written by Andrea Canter, Contributing Editor   
Monday, 24 December 2007
Oscar Peterson plays the best ivory box I've ever heard." –Count Basie

"He set the pace for just about everybody that followed him. He really was just a special player.” -–Dr. Billy Taylor

Oscar Peterson © Edward Gajdel
A true legend of jazz piano, direct heir of Art Tatum and, for many, the definition of mainstream jazz for more than three decades, Oscar Peterson passed away at his home in Mississauga, Ontario at age 82. He had been in ill-health for the past year and succumbed to kidney failure on December 23rd. This past June, Peterson was honored at Carnegie Hall during the Fujitsu Jazz Festival as “The Master of Swing.” The all-star event—the only American tribute to Peterson--included performances by such luminaries as Clark Terry, Hank Jones, Billy Taylor and Marian McPartland. Following a stroke fifteen years ago, Peterson had selectively maintained a touring and recording schedule that belied both his years and physical limitations. Thankfully, whatever he might have lost in power had little impact on his ability to swing hard with a trademark touch that gave the piano a romantic, playful or majestic voice.

Oscar Peterson grew up surrounded by the early 20th century jazz culture of the Little Burgundy neighborhood of his native Montreal, considered a haven for African American artists at the time. He was also surrounded by music, his father a self-taught pianist who in turn taught his five children to play until they were ready for more formal instruction. Oscar started piano and trumpet studies at age 5, concentrating on piano after suffering from tuberculosis at age 7. He received a solid foundation of classical training from Hungarian Paul de Marky. Drawing on the key influences of Teddy Wilson, Nat King Cole, James P. Johnson, and most notably Art Tatum when he was in his early teens, Oscar soon developed a reputation as a technically gifted, melodically inventive pianist. In high school he played with the Montreal High School Victory Serenaders, which included trumpeter Maynard Ferguson.

Oscar Peterson
At 14, Oscar won a Canadian Broadcasting Association amateur contest, which led to weekly appearances on radio. He was “discovered” when Norman Granz  was in town and heard Peterson on a Montreal radio station. Peterson’s Carnegie Hall debut with Granz’s “Jazz at the Philharmonic” in 1949 was the beginning of his rise to fame through Granz’ concert series and recording contracts. His melding of swing and bop defied more specific classification: “Too many jazz pianists limit themselves to a personal style, a trademark, so to speak,” said Oscar. “They confine themselves to one type of playing. I believe in using the entire piano as a single instrument capable of expressing every possible musical idea. I have no one style. I play as I feel.” With his ferocious physical command of the piano, many criticized Peterson as a showy technician rather than emotional artist, yet the response he generated from the audience and the esteem of his colleagues countered that view, and anyone who saw Oscar Peterson live witnessed not only his amazing dexterity, but also his long lines and the joy and passion he infused in his music. Noted Oscar, “Some people try to get very philosophical and cerebral about what they’re trying to say with jazz. You don’t need any prologues, you just play. If you have something to say of any worth, then people will listen to you.”

Following his early successes under Norman Granz in the 50s, Peterson primarily enjoyed the role of leader rather than as sideman or accompanist, while frequently featuring such outstanding guest soloists as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Ben Webster, Lester Young, Stan Getz, Clark Terry, Benny Carter, and Milt Jackson. Over the years, Oscar was most often associated with the piano trio, from his classic threesome of Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen to his drumless renditions with Barney Kessel or Herb Ellis, and later Joe Pass. In the past decade, he more often used a quartet format: “I use the quartet with guitar, bass, and drums more than anything now, which is the best of both worlds," he told Jazz Times in 1995. "You have all of the rhythmic impetus, plus the backing and counterpoint of the guitarist." His quartet partners in his final years included Lorne Lofsky or Ulf Wakinius on guitar, Nils Henning-Orstad Pedersen on bass and Martin Drew or Alvin Queen on drums.

Peterson released hundreds of recordings too numerous to mention over a period of nearly 60 years, particularly for Pablo, Verve, and most recently Telarc, and much of his early recordings have been reissued on CD. His incredible discography alone assures his place in the history of jazz piano and composition. Quick to spot new talent, Peterson featured young rising stars such as Roy Hargrove and Ralph Moore on his recordings for Telarc. He also was a committed educator who helped promote the careers of young artists who would become some of the most accomplished--most notably Benny Green and Hiromi; fellow Canadian Diana Krall also cites Oscar as a significant source of inspiration. For a time he was adjunct faculty and later chancellor at York University in Toronto.

Peterson devoted at least as much time to composing as performing. In addition to the international acclaim he received for the Canadiana Suite (1963), other works include "African Suite," "Hallelujah Time," "Blues for Big Scotia," "Blues for Smedley," ""The Smudge, " "Bossa Beguine," "Love Ballad,", the classic "Tenderly," and the Trail of Dreams suite. His "Hymn to Freedom" was one of the crusade hymns of the Civil Rights Movement of the National Film Board, the BBC, and other film and television projects. He also composed the scores for several films, including The Silent Partner, which won a Canadian Film Award in 1978.

Oscar Peterson © Edward Gajdel
Among a long list of awards throughout his career, Peterson received the Order of Canada in 1972, the Glenn Gould International Prize in 1993, 8 Grammy Awards including the Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 1997, the President's Award of the International Association for Jazz Education in 2003, the Hall of Fame Award from the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (2004), and BBC Radio’s Lifetime Achievement Award (2005). In 2005, Peterson became the first living individual (other than a reigning monarch) honored with a Canadian postal stamp. Only a month before his death, Peterson was announced as the recipient of the 2008 Founders Award from the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Despite curtailing his touring somewhat after his stroke in 1993, Oscar performed at Canadian and European jazz festivals every year and continued international concert tours such as his 2003 tour of Japan and 2006 tour of the UK, and maintained an online journal of his impressions of music and life on his website. Renewed public interest in Oscar Peterson followed the release of his autobiography and accompanying CD, A Jazz Odyssey (2002), and he made a few club and concert hall appearances each year in the U.S. until poor health intervened in the past year.

Peterson is survived by fourth wife, Kelly, and daughter Celine.

There's an extreme joy I get in playing that I've never been able to explain. I can only transmit it through the playing; I can't put it into words." –Oscar Peterson (1996)

For more thoughts on Oscar Peterson, see Andrea Canter’s blog entry at



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