Oscar Peterson Biography
Challenged by Tatum Disc, Founded School in Toronto, Suffered Stroke, Selected works
Canadian-born Oscar Peterson is generally acclaimed as one of the most spectacularly talented musicians ever to play the piano in the jazz genre. In the words of Scott Yanow of the All Music Guide, Peterson "plays 100 notes where other pianists might use ten"—and, Yanow contended in response to critics who accused Peterson of empty virtuosity, "all 100 usually fit." Peterson made hundreds of recordings over his 65-year career, and even a 1993 stroke that disabled his left hand did not really slow him down.
Peterson was born in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, on August 15, 1925. His father Daniel Peterson was a Canadian National railroad porter, born in the Virgin Islands, who loved classical music and jazz; his mother was of Caribbean background. Peterson started playing the piano at age five, taught at first by his sister Daisy. His older brother Fred introduced him to jazz, and Peterson later remembered Fred's skills as superior to his own. Fred Peterson died of tuberculosis when he was 16, but his younger brother picked up the torch. Oscar Peterson studied classical music with Paul de Marky, a Hungarian-born teacher who had studied with an apprentice of the nineteenth-century virtuoso Franz Liszt. When he was about 14, Peterson took home first prize on a radio talent show and landed a weekly program on Montreal station CKAC.
That led to appearances on nationally broadcast Canadian shows like "The Light Up and Listen Hour," and by 1942 he was performing with one of Canada's leading big bands, the Johnny Holmes Orchestra. But Peterson's father still knew how to cut his son down to size and challenge him further: he brought home a record by jazz pianist Art Tatum. "He said, 'You think you're so great. Why don't you put it on?' So I did," Peterson recalled to Smithsonian writer Marya Hornbacher. "And of course I was just about flattened. … I swear, I didn't play piano for two months afterward, I was so intimidated." When the two men met later on, Tatum correctly pegged Peterson as a likely successor to his own reign as king of jazz pianists. Another early admirer was bandleader Count Basie, who said in 1945 that Peterson "plays the best ivory box I've ever heard," as quoted in the Canadian magazine Maclean's.
Peterson's breakthrough in the United States came in 1949, when jazz promoter Norman Granz heard him playing as part of a trio at Montreal's Alberta Lounge and invited him to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York with an all-star Jazz at the Philharmonic lineup. One widely told story holds that Granz was in taxi on the way to the airport in Montreal, heard a live Peterson broadcast on the radio, and insisted that the cab driver turn around and drive him to the club where the broadcast originated. Peterson had a similar impact on the audience that gathered at Carnegie Hall; on a bill crowded with top-level jazz talent, including bebop saxophone pioneer Charlie Parker, Peterson (according to a Down Beat report quoted in Maclean's) "stopped the concert dead cold in its tracks."
Granz took the Jazz at the Philharmonic concept on the road in the early 1950s, and Peterson went along, visiting Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, and the Philippines in addition to 41 North American cities. Peterson formed a trio in 1953 with guitarist Herb Ellis and bassist Ray Brown. In 1956 the trio made one of Peterson's bestselling recordings, At the Stratford Shakespearean Festival. Ellis left the band in 1958 and was replaced by drummer Ed Thigpen. Jazz fans never tire of debating which of these classic ensembles was the better one; in the earlier group, each of the three members showed an uncanny awareness for the next move another might make, while the later combo, with its basically percussive sound, showed off Peterson's still-growing talent.
Founded School in Toronto
Despite his success in the United States, Peterson retained his ties to Canada for the rest of his life. He moved to Toronto in 1958 and with several other musicians founded the Advanced School of Contemporary Music, one of the earliest educational institutions devoted to jazz, two years later. The school lasted three years but eventually fell victim to the unflagging demand for Peterson's performances and recordings. The pianist gained fans all over the world, and he even appeared behind the Communist Iron Curtain in the Slovenian city of Ljubljana, then part of Yugoslavia, in 1964. That year, Peterson first made his mark as a composer with his "Canadiana Suite." Peterson branched out into the vocal realm in 1965 with the album With Respect to Nat—revealing a voice startlingly similar to that of the great pop singer.
Peterson had been recording for 20 years by that time, beginning with waxings made for the RCA Victor Canada label in the mid-1940s, and his catalog was vast. A few critics asserted that Peterson's playing lacked, in the words of a French reviewer quoted in Smithsonian, a "profound sense of the blues," but jazz fans continued to snap up the five or six recordings Peterson might issue in the course of a single year, many of them on the Verve label. He would eventually make more than 400 recordings. In the late 1960s he began recording for MPS, and he made the first of many recordings as a soloist in 1968. Many Peterson dates in the 1970s and 1980s featured him playing solo, at the peak of his powers. He formed another classic piano-guitar-bass trio in the 1970s with guitarist Joe Pass and Danish-born bassist Niels Pederson. Peterson composed film and television scored in the 1970s, and he built a recording studio in his home so that he could experiment with electronic keyboard and sound equipment. He reunited with Ellis and Brown in 1990, recording four CDs over two days. In addition to seven Grammy awards, Peterson could boast an array of other honors including the Order of Canada. He was the subject of two biographies and wrote an autobiography of his own, A Jazz Odyssey: The Life of Oscar Peterson.
One of the sources of Peterson's dazzling, full sound was the vigorous activity of his left hand while he played. He is reputed to have reached down during one concert and lit a cigarette for a patron in the front row with his right hand, keeping up the flow of music all the while with his left. But in 1993, while performing at the Blue Note club in New York, Peterson noticed a numbness in his left hand, and by the end of the show he could hardly move it. Doctors diagnosed a stroke, and Peterson, depressed, stopped playing for two years. "The first day I sat at the piano with my therapist, I had tears in my eyes," he told Michael Anthony of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. But his fellow musicians proved a strong source of encouragement. Playing with a group, he told Anthony, was "the best therapy of all."
Peterson gradually resumed a full schedule of touring and recording, finding eager audiences among fans who wanted to witness a true jazz legend. Most of those fans didn't realize that Peterson was using his left hand only sparingly. Between engagements, he spent time at his home in suburban Toronto with his wife Kelly and daughter Celine, keeping in touch with six children from two of his three earlier marriages. A square in the heart of Toronto's financial district was named for Peterson in 2004. January of the year 2005 saw Peterson performing at the Canada for Asia concert in Toronto, with proceeds going toward the rebuilding of communities devastated by the Indian Ocean tsunami of the previous year.
I Got Rhythm, RCA, recorded 1947-49.
Norman Granz Jam Session, Verve, 1952.
At the Stratford Shakespearean Festival, Verve, 1956 (reissued 1992).
On the Town, Verve, 1958.
The Trio (live), Verve, 1961.
Affinity, Verve, 1962.
Canadiana Suite, Mercury, 1964.
With Respect to Nat, Limelight, 1965.
The Way I Really Play, MPS, 1968.
My Favorite Instrument, MPS, 1980.
Saturday Night at the Blue Note, Telarc, reissued 1990.
A Jazz Odyssey, Verve, 2002 (issued in conjunction with autobiography of same title).
Solo: Live, Pablo, 2002.
(With Richard Palmer as editor and consultant) A Jazz Odyssey: The Life of Oscar Peterson, Continuum, 2002.
Contemporary Musicians, volume 11, Gale, 1994.
Palmer, Richard, Oscar Peterson, Spellmount, 1984.
Lees, Gene, The Will to Swing, Prima, 1990.
Maclean's, September 13, 1999, p. 48; September 4, 2000, p. 36.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 30, 2004, p. D6.
Smithsonian, January 2005, p. 56.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis), February 16, 1999, p. E1.
"Oscar Peterson," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (May 4, 2005).
—James M. Manheim
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