Oscar Peterson

  • Oscar Peterson memorial

    Arguably one of the world’s most influential pianists of the modern era, Oscar Emmanuel Peterson was born in 1925, and grew up in a predominantly black poor neighbourhood of Montreal to immigrants from the West Indies.

    He found himself immersed in the emerging jazz culture, and at the age of five, began learning to play both the piano and trumpet. A railroad worker, his father played both and was influential in Oscar’s early taking to the instruments, but it was mostly his sister Daisy who first taught Oscar to play the piano. Although he loved the trumpet, he was forced to turn his attention to the piano when he was seven, after a severe bout of tuberculosis. He was fortunate enough to study under the tutilage of some of the greatest classical pianists in Montreal while growing up, often practicing four to six hours per day, but it was jazz and ragtime that continued to fuel his imagination.

    In 1940, Peterson won the CBC’s national music competition, which led to a series of gigs on weekly radio shows. Encouraged, he dropped out of school and became a professional musician, playing at hotels and music halls. During this period, he continued to practice daily, and cited the likes of Nat King Cole, Teddy Wilson, and Art Tatum among his influences, and caught their performances whenever possible.

    A chance meeting with impresario Norman Granz led to an unofficial managerial role. By the time he made his first appearnace at Carnegie Hall four years later with Granz as part of his “Jazz At The Philharmonic” project in 1949, he’d now appeared on several successful albums, but couldn’t be credited due to union regulations. But their relationship was more than merely business. Peterson often praised Granz for his willingness to stand up for black musicians as a whole, at one time in the early ’50s even confronting a police officer in the Deep South, who refused to allow Peterson and his band from using “whites only” taxis. His adoration for Granz was so great that he even named his dog after the nickname he called him, Smedley.

    During this period, Peterson played with some of the greatest jazz performers of the day, as well as recorded with them, including Louis Armstrong, Buddy Rich, Ella Fitzgerald, Roy Eldridge, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Fred Astaire, Stan Getz, and Dizzy Gillespie, to name but a few. He also recorded several albums on his own for the next two decades as well, after re-defining the whole approach of a three-piece jazz ensemble with various incarnations of the Oscar Peterson Trio. One version included Herb Ellis, a white guitarist. That racial integration that caused controversy with segragationists, as well as admiration, concert tickets, and record sales for those who weren’t in favour of segragation.

    In total, he appeared on over 40 records throughout the 1950s alone, most of which were on Verve Records, Norman Granz’s label as well. Included in those were a 10-album run of tributes in the SONGBOOK series, featuring Peterson’s jazz and classical interpretations of the hits from artists like Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jimmy McHugh, and Irving Berlin. He also won great critical praise for ROMANCE – THE VOCAL STYLING OF OSCAR PETERSON, with Ray Brown, Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis. It would turn out to be one of the few albums that featured him singing.

    He also dabbled with quartets, duos, and solo performances throughout his career, as well as playing in small and big bands – whatever setting was appropriate for the occasion. Some of his recordings during the ’60s are widely considered as landmark jazz albums, both for the compositions as well as their improvisational dexterity. That list includes his performance at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival in ’62, ON THE TOWN (recorded live at the Town Tavern in Toronto), CANADIANA SUITE (which included the title track – one of the most popular jazz songs of the modern era), SOUL ESPANOL, THE GREATEST JAZZ CONCERT IN THE WORLD, WITH RESPECT TO NAT (his tribute to Nat King Cole), and WE GET REQUESTS.

    His 1963 tour of Japan also made him the first Canadian jazz artist to perform there, marked by another landmark album, THE OSCAR PETERSON TRIO IN TOKYO. But it was his ability to bridge the gap between jazz purists and fans of pop that made an indelible mark on music fans of all genres during this period, highlighted by his 1969 album, MOTIONS AND EMOTIONS, featuring orchestral arrangements of pop songs such as The Beatles’ “Yesterday” and “Eleanor Rigby.”One of his most memorable songs was also written during this period – “Hymn To The Freedom,” inspired by the US civil rights movement.

    The ’60s also saw Peterson start up and head the Advanced School of Contemporary Music in Toronto. But after five years, he was forced to close the school because concert touring called him and his associates away, and also because it didn’t qualify for any government funding.

    He continued to expand his repetoire, although he often favoured the blues and swing for the early part of the 1970s. This period was highlighted by a second album recorded live in Tokyo, where he played his renditions of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Old Rockin’ Chair” and Duke Ellington’s “What Am I Here For,” as well as several classical standards. He also appeared on Granz’s compilation called JAZZ AT SANTA MONICA ’72, where his performance at one of the leading jazz festivals in North America was argued by many critics as the highlight.

    That same year, he began a 16-year run on Pablo Records, including four straight records with Count Basie, and THE TRIO with Joe Pass and Niels-Henning ├śrsted Pedersen. With “Blues Etude” and “Chicago Blues,” and his renditions of Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday” and Nate Robinson’s “Easy Listening Blues” leading the way, he won the ’75 Grammy Award for Best Jazz Performance by a Group.

    In 1978, he composed his first and only film score – for “The Silent Partner,” a Canadian crime film starring Elliott Gould, Christopher Plummer, and Susannah York. That same year, his indelible mark on Canadian music was honoured with his election into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.

    The 1980s started with a pair of albums that saw him re-kindle his relationship with trumpet great Dizzy Gillespie. He also began dabbling in a duo with Herbie Hancock, introducing a whole new audience to his music. Freddie Hubbard, Clark Terry, and Milt Jackson were but a few of the other artists that appeared on his albums during this period, which as was usually the case, ran the gamut between jazz, classical, and the blues.

    He returned to vinyl in 1990, and his move to Telarc proved golden for the label. Releasing four live albums recorded at New York’s The Blue Note in less than a year, he won Grammys for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Group and as a soloist.

    But looking for new challenges, he mentored the York University jazz program and also became the Chancellor for the University for several years in the early ’90s. Among his students were piano greats Benny Green and Oliver Jones, and even though he’d also published his original jazz piano etudes, he insisted his students study the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. In ’92, Peterson’s niece, television journalist Sylvia Sweeney, also produced an award-winning documentary film, “In the Key of Oscar,” about Peterson in 1992.

    But Peterson’s numerous health issue began catching up with him during this period. He’d had arthritis since he was a teenager, and in fact, in later years he could barely button his shirt. Also, although he was never a slender man, his weight continued to increase and therefore hindered his mobility, and had hip replacement surgery. In ’93, he suffered a stroke that forever weakened his left side and sidelined him for over two years. It were these health problems that Peterson politely declined the position of Lt. Governor of Ontario, offered to him by longtime friend and Prime Minister Jean Chretien.

    He eventually regained mobility and a degree of control in his left hand, although touring and recording took a backseat in life, resuming in 1994. His recordings featured appearances by the likes of Itzhak Perlman, Ray Brown, Benny Carter, Clark Terry, Ralph Moore, and Roy Hargrove. In addition, he released his first and only holiday album in ’95, bringing a touch of jazz to over a dozen Yultide classics. Personal achievements continued to pour in as the decade wore on, and in 1997 he received a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement and an International Jazz Hall of Fame Award.

    With the new millennium, Peterson continued to tour sporadically with a new quartet that usually consisted of guitarist Ulf Wakenius, Niels-Henning ├śrsted Pedersen on double bass, and drummer Martin Drew. He began the decade with the release of TRAIL OF DREAMS: A CANADIAN SUITE. Produced and arranged by longtime friend and composer Michel Legrand, it was one of the few albums Peterson recorded where he wrote all the material. An ode to his native land, it featured critically-acclaimed songs such as “Morning In Newfoundland,” “Banff The Beautiful,” “Ballad To PEI,” “The Okanagan Valley,” and “The French Fiddler.”

    In 2005, Peterson celebrated his 80th birthday at the HMV flagship store in Toronto, where a crowd of about 200 gathered to celebrate with him. Longtime admirer Diana Krall, sang “Happy Birthday” to him and also performed a vocal version of one of Peterson’s songs, “When Summer Comes.” The lyrics for this version were written by Elvis Costello, Krall’s husband. Canada Post also unveiled a limited edition postage stamp that year in his honour.

    But as the decade wore on, Peterson’s health declined rapidly, and had to cancel his scheduled performance at the 2007 Toronto Jazz Festival. A month and a half later, he was unable to attend an all-star performance held in his honour at Carnegie Hall.

    On December 23, 2007, Peterson died in his Mississauga, Ontario home of kidney failure, leaving behind a legacy that consisted of over 200 recordings. In a career that spanned over 60 years, he won a total of eight Grammy Awards, and received practically every other conceivable honour and award in the music industry. He was inducted into the Juno Awards Hall of Fame and the Canadian Jazz and Blues Hall of Fame. Weeks after his death, the Province of Ontario announced a $4 million scholarship for the “Oscar Peterson Chair” for Jazz Performance at York University with an additional $1 million to be awarded annually in music scholarships to underprivileged York students in tribute to Peterson.

    In 1986, he was the first recipient of the Dr Martin Luther King Jr Achievement Award, awarded by the Black Theatre Workshop. He also received a lifetime achievement award in ’91 from the Toronto Arts Award, the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award a year later, and the BBC-Radio Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1999, Concordia University in Montreal renamed their Loyola campus concert hall Oscar Peterson Concert Hall in his honour.

    Along with over a dozen honourary doctorates from various universities across the country, he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada (the country’s highest civilian state order for talent and service) in 1972, and promoted to Companion of the order (the highest degree of merit and humanity), in 1984. He was also a member of the Order of Ontario, a Chevalier of the National Order of Quebec, and an officer of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres of France. In June, 2010, the British Queen Elizabeth II unveiled a statue of Peterson at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.


walter rossi