Peterson, Oscar

Peterson, Oscar
Aug. 15, 1925-Dec. 23, 2007
Canadian pianist and composer


"After me, you're next," said jazz-piano king Art Tatum to Oscar Peterson shortly after the two met in the early 1950s. Tatum, who died in 1956, was right. The classically trained Peterson's technical command of the keyboard has been belittled by some jazz artists and their avant-garde supporters in the critical establishment, who consider him improvisationally "shallow." Nevertheless, the razzle-dazzle and accessibility of his mainstream style have made Peterson one of the best-known living virtuosos of the jazz piano. Peterson's hallmark is his ability to play at blazing speed and at the same time to swing, to stride with his left hand and lay out a lacework-like harmonic line interwoven with rococo rhythmic patterns. His eclectic jazz vocabulary makes him articulate in all jazz piano styles, from New Orleans to bebop, as the singer Carmen McRae observed: "There are many other pianists I love, but … Oscar is my favorite because he encompasses everything." The most recorded of all jazz pianists, Peterson has some 200 albums to his credit, as well as 10 Grammy Awards (1974, 1977, 1978, 1979, two in 1990, two in 1991, 1992, and a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 1997). He is also a winner of a Carnegie Hall Anniversary Medal and the Charlie Parker Bronze Medal, and he was named chancellor of York University, Toronto, in 1991.

At least some of the animosity against Peterson among certain of his peers has been generated by his freedom from racial chauvinism, his refusal to see jazz as "a black man's music." "That's nonsense," he has said. "I'm a Canadian. I learned jazz in a country whose atmosphere is slightly sterile for a jazz musician." Oscar Emmanuel Peterson was born on August 15, 1925 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, the fourth of five children of Daniel and Olive Peterson, immigrants from the West Indies who had met in Montreal. Daniel Peterson, a native of the Virgin Islands, arrived in Canada as a seaman and became a porter with the Canadian Pacific Railway after his marriage. A self-taught organist and a strict disciplinarian, he was determined that all of his children "should know something about music," as Oscar recalled in an interview with Hollie I. West of the Washington Post (August 21, 1975): "So first of all he taught my mother. Then he in turn started each of us on music… . After finishing with our lessons at home, we were farmed out to private tutors. The older members of the family sort of rode roughshod over the younger members to make sure they'd get their work done." All of the children became professional musicians except the oldest boy, Fred, who died at 16. "My father was a great believer in the theory that musicians don't necessarily have to be imbeciles and morons. I more or less agree with him."

Gifted with an extraordinary memory, Oscar Peterson breezed through his music lessons as easily as he mastered his school assignments, learning a piece in just one or two run-throughs. His first love was the trumpet, which he played for two years, beginning at age five. "After spending almost a year in the hospital with tuberculosis, I was advised by the doctor to give up wind instruments," he told Len Lyons, the author of The Great Jazz Pianists: Speaking of Their Lives and Music (1983). "I continued on piano, which I had begun along with the trumpet, though mainly at my father's insistence. The piano didn't start to appeal to me until my older brother Fred got into jazz, or whatever jazz was then, playing 'Golden Slippers' or something like that. What I went through as a student was probably what everyone else grooming himself for the classical field goes through-Czerny, Hanon, Dohnanyi. All of these things just serve to broaden digital control. It was something I wanted to get behind me as quickly as possible."

After attending the Montreal Conservatory for one year, Peterson studied privately with Paul De Marky. "He took me under his wing," he recounted to an interviewer. "He not only taught me classical piano, but he was also sensitive and interested enough to listen to what I was doing jazz-wise." The young man's appetite for jazz piano was whetted by the playing of a West Indian seaman who regularly visited the Petersons and by the swing music of Benny Goodman, which he heard on the radio and emulated in his first efforts at writing arrangements. His introduction to Art Tatum was Tatum's recording of "Tiger Rag," as he recalled in talking to Len Lyons: "I swore it was two people playing. When I finally admitted to myself it was one man, I gave up the piano for a month. I figured it was hopeless to practice." The chief formative influences on him after Tatum were Teddy Wilson, pianistically, and Nat King Cole, vocally. The pianists Erroll Garner and George Shearing also had a strong influence. Peterson told Len Lyons, "Harmonically speaking [my] roots go back to people like Coleman Hawkins … and Hank Jones," players of the era before "the tonality thing" became an alternative to chord changes. Once into jazz, he practiced as many as 18 hours a day.

Peterson's rise to fame began when he won a CBC network radio talent contest in which his oldest sister, Daisy, entered him when he was 14. The contest led to a spot on a weekly program on station CKAC in Montreal and to work with dance orchestras around Quebec and Ontario. When that schedule interfered with his schooling, he dropped out in order to devote himself fully to music. For a brief period when he was suffering "a block," feeling that he had "reached a saturation point," he worked as a riveter in an aircraft factory. After that fallow period, he joined the Johnny Holmes Orchestra, then one of the most popular big bands in Canada. While playing with the Holmes band, for five years, he also did gigs with a trio he formed with drummer Clarence Jones and bassist Austin Roberts. His first record was the 1944 RCA Victor single "I Got Rhythm," with "The Sheik of Araby" on the flip side. Both numbers were done in the then popular boogie-woogie style.

Feeling that he "wasn't ready" for the international big time, Peterson resisted attempts by such American big-band leaders as Jimmie Lunceford and Count Basie to recruit him for their organizations, and had it not been for the impresario Norman Granz, Peterson might never have come to the United States. Granz entered the picture in 1949, as Peterson recounted to Len Lyons: "He was finishing up a promotional trip to Montreal and taking a cab to the airport. I was on the radio. He thought it was a recording, but it was a live broadcast from the Alberta Lounge. The cabdriver straightened him out on that point. The cab turned around and came down to the Alberta." At that time Granz was producing Jazz at the Philharmonic, a touring concert unit named after the Los Angeles Philharmonic Auditorium, where he had run a series of concerts beginning in 1944. When JATP, as it was known in the trade, played Carnegie Hall in New York City on September 18, 1949, Peterson's name was not on the program, which included Ella Fitzgerald, Roy Eldridge, and Coleman Hawkins. He was in the audience, however, having agreed to give a surprise performance. As prearranged, Granz called him to the stage and bid him, "Play whatever you like, for as long as you like." Beginning with "I Only Have Eyes for You," Peterson gave a performance that drew a standing ovation and, as the critic for Down Beat observed, stopped the concert "dead cold in its tracks."

During the 1950s Peterson toured North America and Europe regularly with JATP, and he recorded prolifically on Norman Granz's Clef and Norgran labels and for Verve Records as a soloist, with Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Roy Eldridge, Sonny Stitt, Clark Terry, Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, and other artists, and with his trio. He formed the trio in 1952 because he "wanted to write some contravening lines, something fuller than you could get with just a bass," as he explained to Len Lyons. "The music was written very tightly, although we didn't want to lose the spontaneity in the improvising because you don't have jazz without that." The mainstay of the trio was Ray Brown, on bass, Irving Ashby, on guitar, was succeeded by Barney Kessel in 1953 and by Herb Ellis in 1954. A sampling of concert performances by the trio in the early and mid-1950s comprised the album In Concert. Among the other 40-odd Peterson LPs released in the 1950s were Oscar Peterson Plays Pretty, Oscar Peterson Sings, and discs devoted to the music of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, and Vincent Youmans. In the 15 years beginning in 1951, Peterson was first in the annual Down Beat readers' poll 11 times; second, three times; and third, once. He won similar polls in Metronome, Playboy, and Le Jazz Hot.

In 1959 Peterson changed the makeup of his trio, replacing guitarist Herb Ellis with drummer Ed Thigpen. Peterson admitted to Len Lyons that "part of the reason was an ego trip" for him. "There was a lot of talk about my virtuosity on the instrument, and some people were saying, 'Oh, he can play that way with a guitar because it's got that light, fast sound, but he couldn't pull off those lines with a drummer burnin' up back there.' I wanted to prove it could be done. We chose Ed Thigpen because of his brushwork and sensitivity in general." In the fall of 1959 Peterson opened the Advanced School of Contemporary Music in a house on Park Road in Toronto, Ontario. Dropping their annual fall tour, Peterson, Ray Brown, and Ed Thigpen, along with clarinetist Phil Nimmons, conducted the school for several months a year through 1963.

After the closing of the Advanced School of Contemporary Music, Peterson, Brown, and Thigpen resumed their full recording and touring schedules. Their itinerary took them from the Newport Jazz Festival and other American localities to England, Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, Ghana, Greece, and Japan. Among the albums they cut-most of them on the Verve label-were Eloquence, The Sound of the Trio, Oscar Peterson Plays My Fair Lady, West Side Story, and Night Train (which included "Georgia on My Mind"). The two last mentioned are among Peterson's personal favorites-West Side Story "because it was a departure in terms of material from what the trio was doing at the time" and Night Train "because we accomplished what we wanted to in terms of feeling." Regarding Eloquence, Leonard Feather wrote in his syndicated column as published in the New York Post (November 7, 1965): "Peterson's capacious hands can extract the gentlest whimper, the profoundest roar, or the deepest indigo wails from his keyboard."

In 1966 Sam Jones replaced Ray Brown on bass in the Peterson trio, and Louis Hayes replaced Ed Thigpen on drums. Later personnel changes brought in the bassists George Mraz and Niels Henning-Orsted Pedersen and the drummer Ray Price. A tour of Europe with the trio in 1970 convinced Peterson that he was right in ignoring jazz experimentalists who accused him of being "in a rut." "There was no doubt about it," he told Alistair Lawrie of the Toronto Globe and Mail (January 9, 1971). "People wanted to listen to jazz performers who remained true to the fundamental principles of the music. The avant-garde got nowhere."

The double album Not So Much a Rhythm Section (1971) was a re-pressing of LPs that Peterson had made a decade before, with Ernie Wilkins and Russell Garcia's band. Released about the same time was Volume 5 in Peterson's Exclusively for My Friends series, an album that included "Summertime." Reviewing both albums as well as Peterson's 1971 tour, Benny Green wrote in the London Observer (November 7, 1971): "In addition to incisiveness of touch and clarity of mind, Peterson has developed a most subtle command of dynamics, so that the ebb and flow of his attack can suggest orchestral effects quite distinctly… . 'Summertime' in particular is the kind of interpretation that radically alters the composer's ground-plan and yet would without any question have inspired George Gershwin to raptures of appreciation."

In 1969 Oscar Peterson recorded My Favorite Instrument, his first solo album on Norman Granz's Pablov label, and three years later he disbanded his trio and began to tour as a solo performer. In his Washington Post interview with Hollie I. West, he talked about the challenge of performing alone after 20 years in a trio context: "When the moment comes for you to play time, you have to supply yourself the background on which to play the creative lines. And you have to keep that background going-meaning the left hand. And it has to come off so that there's no scuffle… .You can't sit down and think you're going to play a piano. I think of phrases, colors, intensities. That's the only way it can be. I have to become the piano."

Len Lyons asked Peterson if playing solo had "opened up any new possibilities." "In one aspect," Peterson replied. "I use certain harmonic movements with modulating root tones while I'm playing the melody, which I couldn't do with the trio. The bass player would always wonder where we were going. Another thing that my solo playing has brought out more predominantly is those double-handed bass lines. They stand out a little better now. I use them to connect very harmonic parts of a piece to other segments of it." He pointed out that the use of double-octave lines as transitions is "the most direct playing possible," as if "the piece had been stripped down to a line." "Phineas [Newborn] was using this quite a bit. Subconsciously I guess I dropped a lot of the double-octave things for a while because I didn't want any controversy over who started what."

Solo performances by Peterson between 1972 and 1974 were represented on the album The History of the Artist, and his tour of the U.S.S.R. in 1974 was memorialized by Oscar Peterson in Russia. On Canadian television Peterson hosted the jazz showcase series Oscar Peterson Presents in 1974 and Oscar Peterson and Friends in 1980. For BBC-TV he did the series Oscar Peterson's Piano Party in 1974. He wrote and played (on a Rhodes electric organ) the music for the pilot of a television series to be called "Crunch," which has never been aired. While performing solo on a regular basis, Peterson during this period often collaborated in trios or duets with Niels Henning-Orsted Pedersen, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, trumpeter Clark Terry, guitarist Joe Pass, and others. Among the Pablo recordings of live collaborative concerts have been the following: The London Concert: Royal Festival Hall, 1978 (released in 1979), on which Peterson outshone the drumming of Louis Bellson, especially in covers of Fats Waller's "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "Jitterbug Waltz"; Oscar Peterson Digital at Montreux (1980), on which, with Pedersen on bass, Peterson made a brilliant tour de force of "Back Home in Indiana" and did a fine medley of Duke Ellington compositions; and Oscar Peterson Live at the North Sea Jazz Festival: The Hague, Holland, 1980 (1981), on which he was accompanied by Pedersen, Pass, and, on harmonica, by Toots Thielemans.

At the Kool Jazz Festival at Carnegie Hall in July 1981, Peterson interspersed his solo offerings, including his version of "My Foolish Heart" and other pop songs, with collaborations with John Heard, bass, and Terry Clark, drums. Heard and Clark contributed a swing underlay to Peterson's cool, light touch in such pieces as "City Lights," a beguilingly simple waltz he had written for a jazz ballet. In 1982 Peterson and Herbie Hancock, his favorite among the pianists in the generation behind his, began performing as a piano duo.

Early in 1983 Peterson completed and recorded his Africa Suite. Two songs from that suite, "Nigerian Marketplace," containing echoes of gospel and salsa, and "Peace," the blues-inspired conclusion, immediately became part of his concert repertoire. They were among his offerings at the Kool Jazz Festival in June 1983 and at the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal the following month. Covering the former event for the New York Times (June 29, 1983), Stephen Holden wrote: "One is always conscious while in Mr. Peterson's presence of massive power being very discriminatingly unleashed in cascading improvisational runs whose feathery lightness seems almost inhumanly perfect." Reporting on his performance at the Theatre St. Denis in Montreal, Mark Miller of the Toronto Globe and Mail (July 8, 1983) described "Peace" as "moving in its simplicity, if not naivete, as it built deliberately from the sparest of melodies to a joyful, near-spiritual climax." "It is remarkable," Miller wrote, "that at the career stage where other jazz musicians are beginning to settle into well-worn paths, Peterson has still the will and the need to undertake a new search."

In 1990 members of Peterson's most famous trio from the 1950s-Peterson, bassist Ray Brown, and guitarist Herb Ellis-reunited in New York for a gig at the Blue Note with guest drummer Bobby Durham. Stanley Crouch wrote of this performance in the Village Voice (March 20, 1990), "As the grand virtuoso of the house party groove, Peterson's style is one of good cheer, of the loping joke, of the celebratory jazz rhythm, and of the imperial control of the keyboard in mounting effusions of blues phrases delivered at fastball velocities." Peterson won two 1990 Grammy Awards for his album The Legendary Oscar Peterson Trio Live at the Blue Note, for best jazz instrumental performance by a soloist and best jazz instrumental performance by a group. The following year his trio won a 1991 Grammy for best jazz instrumental performance by a group for Saturday Night at the Blue Note. At the Grammy Awards ceremonies in 1997, Peterson was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award for half a century of accomplishment as a jazz musician. Honors from his native country were also forthcoming: York University of Toronto named him Chancellor in 1991; three years later, Begone Dull Care (1949), an animated film that used background music by the Oscar Peterson Trio, was revived and prominently featured in "Leonard Maltin's Animation Favorites from the National Film Board of Canada," a two-hour presentation on the Arts & Entertainment Network. The Canadian government commissioned Peterson to write the "Bach Suite" for his Oscar Peterson Live! album, and he also was asked to write a song to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Montreal, in 1991.

Despite a stroke that left him slightly paralyzed, he was able to participate in the 1995 JVC Jazz Festival in New York. Brought to the stage of sold-out Carnegie Hall in a wheelchair, he played "Satin Doll" and "Secret Love" and mixed these and other standards with original compositions, delivering what critics thought to be an outstanding performance. Peter Watrous wrote in the New York Times (June 29, 1995) that "for much of his brief concert his left hand was only barely functional, occasionally marking time with a few soft notes. But Mr. Peterson, who plays more with his right hand than most pianists with two, still put on a show… . Mr. Peterson never lost his concentration. He still plays with an unperturbable sense of time, placing his phrases just so. And the way his notes maintained their relationship to the beat was always marvelous and swinging… . But it was his improvising, especially during the second half, that was often stunning, with high-speed phrases running through the harmony of a piece with an elegant clarity."

Peterson has also turned his talents to encouraging younger musicians. As a faculty member of the School of Jazz in Lenox, Massachusetts, and the Banff Centre in Toronto, he has tried to convey to his students his view that "from a creative standpoint there are no wrong notes because every note can be related to a chord … can be made part of your line." His emphasis in teaching is on technique, "so they can face whatever they come up against." For him, technique is a matter of time: "On an overlay of harmonic carpeting … you have to get from here to there [rhythmically] in whatever time you're allotted with whatever ideas you have."

On stage, Peterson is relaxed and warm, responding to ovations with a broad, winning smile. He is also regal. Refusing to accept in jazz standards "that would be intolerable" in classical music, he performs only in controlled settings. When he did engagements in nightclubs years ago, he insisted that there be no clinking of glasses or ringing of cash registers during sets; he would silence noisy patrons with the reprimand, "Would you act this way at a classical concert?"; and he once left the stage for half an hour when an audience was inattentive. With his sidemen he is equally demanding. "I'm a stick-in-the-mud on this matter of the caliber of performance…," he acknowledged to Len Lyons. "You carry a responsibility on stage with you."

Oscar Peterson has been married four times and has five grown children by his first wife, Lillie, whom he married in 1944. He married his second wife, Sandra in 1966; they were divorced 10 years later. In 1977, he married his third wife, Charlotte, a native of Switzerland, with whom he had a son. He has a daughter by his fourth wife, Kelly, whom he married in the early 1990s. Although audiences would never guess it, Peterson sometimes plays with arthritic pain, a family legacy. He has learned to control his temper and is not as "impatient, up-tight" as he used to be, he told Donna Sanders of the Toronto Globe and Mail (June 9, 1979) when she interviewed him at his home in Mississauga, Ontario. He pointed out that in the basement of the house he had recently completed the installation of a recording studio. "Years ago…I was out playing all the time. But now with the new studio and the chance to do some composing…I can pursue the love of my life … my profession. And I can do a good part of it at home." A lover of art, he long made a practice of visiting museums and galleries in the cities on his itinerary. Among his recreations have been photography, swimming, water skiing, and astronomy. He once described cooking as one of his "minor hobbies."

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