Peterson, Oscar (Obituary)

When Oscar PETERSON died on Dec. 23 at 82, the obituarists quickly split into two camps. Most lauded Peterson's legendary piano virtuosity. A few noted with regret that his virtuosity had occasionally landed him in trouble with surly critics. "Beautifully executed displays of technique but woefully weak on emotional projection," John S. Wilson wrote in the New York Times in 1973.

Two things need to be said about this. First, critics were hardly the only ones complaining. Though Peterson was generally revered among musicians who rose to prominence in the decade after the Second World War, later generations paid him little attention. In any jazz club today you would hear no end of pianists whose debt to McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock or Keith Jarrett is obvious, but not many junior Peterson clones.

Largely this has to do with a widespread sentiment to the effect that Peterson's was an art of synthesis, not innovation. One of jazz's odd codes is that its copycats always line up to mimic its loners, the better to suck their individuality dry through repetition. Peterson wasn't thought original enough to be worth copying. "He just plays a bunch of blues clichés," a young saxophonist told me once.

My other point is that a lot of the odes to Peterson actually didn't disagree with the critics about much. If the naysayers said, "nothing but flash," it was dismaying that so many tributes said, in effect, "But boy, what flash."

Jazz is not a parlour trick, or shouldn't be. If all that can be said for a guy is that he could execute complex runs at brisk tempos, there isn't much to say. But Peterson left his admirers few other easy handles. He didn't have a tragic drug habit. His politics, while heartfelt and increasingly embittered, were conventional. He was prolific and he recorded for successful companies, so there is no cult of the great lost Peterson session to flatter connoisseurs. In short, Peterson resists mystification.

His virtues, which were considerable, were working-class. His virtuosity was obviously the product of hard work, which is never in style. He was extraordinarily adaptable, so he became the premier keyboard accompanist of the 1950s, as Wynton Kelly would in the 1960s, Tommy Flanagan in the 1970s and Mulgrew Miller in the 1980s. But that's what's so extraordinary. Those other accompanists were self-effacing by nature. A headliner never needed worry that Flanagan or Miller would steal the show. If you had Peterson at your back, being upstaged was a constant danger. But he knew how to make a star sound so good it was worth the risk. A relatively late example, an album with Freddie Hubbard from the early 1980s called Face to Face, shows how Peterson could both relax a horn player and spur him to effective work.

More than most accompanists, Peterson was an important bandleader in his own right. Two early albums on Verve with contrasting trios show the breadth of his ability as a small-group orchestrator. On At The Stratford Shakespearean Festival, guitarist Herb Ellis and bassist Ray Brown match the leader's linear invention. Melodies in three different registers - four, given Peterson's formidable left hand - intertwine for intoxicating counterpoint. On The Canadiana Suite, the emphasis shifts from melody to rhythmic variety. Every track has a unique personality. Here especially, if today's piano trios ignore Peterson's lesson in favour of a generic impressionism, it is hardly Peterson's fault.

Having shown he could inspire a soloist and lead a band, Peterson turned, in the long twilight of his career, to the soloist's art. Beginning with My Favorite Instrument (1968), and continuing nearly until his death, Peterson filtered his roots in old-fashioned "stride" piano through all the lessons of the intervening years. Here his example is so formidable it is safer to ignore it: the rock-steady swing at any tempo, the lush chording, the emotional range.

In his courageous new book about saxophonist John Coltrane, Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, New York Times critic Ben Ratliff asks jazz's favourite holy grail question, "Who will be the next Coltrane?" In an insight that will win him few friends, Ratliff calls the question "hostile" to jazz, "or basically uninterested in it." An art that is desperate for revolution must not have many enduring qualities. Yet jazz does, and so did Peterson. He was never going to lead anyone's revolution. Fashion was hostile to him, or basically uninterested. But that was fashion's problem. It needn't be ours.

Maclean's January 14, 2008