Oscar Peterson

Oct 18, 2012

By James Sandham

Well, music lover, I’ve been continuing my fall jazz kick, and this week I’ve been into Oscar Peterson, the Canadian Music Hall of Fame’s 1978 inductee. He’s released more than 200 recordings, won eight Grammy Awards (including a Lifetime Achievement Award) and is generally considered to be one of the best all-around jazz pianists of all time. It’s quite a life.

It all started in Montreal’s Little Burgundy neighbourhood, where Peterson was born in 1925. Perhaps it’s no surprise, having been born into the heyday of classic jazz, that Peterson’s interest in music began early on. It’s reported that at age five he was already honing his skills on both the trumpet and piano, but a bout of tuberculosis at age seven put the kibosh on the former. It may have been for the better, though, because from that point on Peterson was able focus exclusively on the piano, the instrument on which he would later become a legend.

Peterson’s father, Daniel, who had emigrated to Montreal from the West Indies with Peterson’s mother, was one of his first piano teachers. Peterson’s sister, Daisy Sweeney, who was a classical piano player, also taught him some early lessons, as did Hungarian-born pianist Paul de Marky. It was largely due to their training that Peterson reached the heights he did. They had him practising hard on a daily basis – sometimes for up to six hours. As a result, by age nine Peterson was playing with a level of control that would impress most professional musicians. At the age of 14 he won a national music competition organized by the CBC, and at that point dropped out of school to pursue music full time.

Peterson initially worked as a pianist for a weekly radio show, playing at hotels and music halls on the side. But an important step in his career came when he joined American jazz impresario Norman Granz’s now-legendary Verve label and became involved with Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic project. Granz became Peterson’s manager – a relationship that would last most of Peterson’s career – and Peterson often praised him for standing up for him and other black jazz musicians in the segregationist south of the 1950s and 1960s, including one incident where Granz stood up to a gun-toting southern policeman who wanted to stop Peterson from using a “white-only” taxi.

In spite of such racist barriers of the time, Peterson’s talent and prestige only continued to grow. He redefined the jazz trio by bringing the musicianship of all three members up to the highest level, and included both white and black players – a controversial move in the 1950s. Peterson and his trio produced such successful albums as Night Train and Canadiana Suite. While his early trios are considered the setting in which he was strongest, Peterson went on from there to perform variously with quartets, duos and solo.

By the 1990s, after a lifetime of achievement in the musical world as a composer, musician and teacher, Peterson could be found working as a mentor in York University’s jazz program, and even served as chancellor of the university for a time. His arthritis, however – which he’d suffered from since he was young – increasingly affected his ability to play. Peterson also underwent hip surgery, and in 1993 he suffered a stroke, which reportedly forced him to turn down the position of lieutenant governor of Ontario that had been offered to him by longtime admirer and friend Jean Chrétien.

Peterson took two years to recuperate and his virtuosity was never restored to its original level. After his stroke he relied principally on his right hand to play. Nonetheless, he continued to play and tour into the 2000s.

In 2007, however, Peterson’s health deteriorated rapidly and he was forced to cancel performances at the Toronto Jazz Festival, as well as at a Carnegie Hall all-star performance that was to be held in his honour. He died of kidney failure at the end of the year, at home, in Mississauga.

Oscar Peterson – “C Jam Blues”