Oscar Emmanuel Peterson, jazz pianist and composer (b at Montréal 15 Aug 1925, d at Mississauga 23 Dec 2007). The second-youngest of five children, he was raised in the poor St Henri neighbourhood of Montréal.
Peterson, Oscar Emmanuel
Oscar Emmanuel Peterson, jazz pianist and composer (b at Montréal 15 Aug 1925, d at Mississauga 23 Dec 2007). The second-youngest of five children, he was raised in the poor St Henri neighbourhood of Montréal. His father, Daniel, a CPR porter and amateur organist, insisted that all of the Peterson children should study music, each in turn teaching the next youngest. Thus Peterson's first instructor was his sister Daisy, who would in fact become a respected piano teacher in the Montréal black community; her later pupils included the jazz musicians Oliver JONES, Joe Sealy and Reg Wilson.
Peterson subsequently studied during his youth and teens with two teachers of widely dissimilar backgrounds: Louis Hooper, a classically trained Canadian veteran of the Harlem jazz scene of the 1920s, and Paul de Marky, a Hungarian concert pianist in the 19th-century tradition of Franz Liszt. Peterson's growing command of the keyboard reflected his classical background; his future, however, lay in JAZZ. Under the influence of the popular American pianists Nat King Cole, Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson, Peterson emerged during the early 1940s as a celebrity in Montréal, performing on local radio and appearing as the featured soloist from 1943 to 1947 with the Johnny Holmes Orchestra, a popular - and otherwise white - dance band.
Peterson made his first recordings for RCA Victor in March 1945; although these early releases, notably I Got Rhythm, capitalized on his skill in the popular boogie-woogie style of the day, they also revealed in nascent form the extraordinary piano technique that would characterize his playing throughout his career. Their popularity, together with the interest generated by his exposure on such CBC Radio variety shows as Light Up and Listen and The Happy Gang, as well as two western tours in 1946, established Peterson as the first jazz star that Canada could truly call its own.
Leaving the Johnny Holmes Orchestra, Peterson formed his own trio and made the Alberta Lounge in Montréal his base from 1947 to 1949. He continued to appear on radio and to record; the 32 tunes that he recorded in Montréal for RCA Victor were collected on CD by BMG France in 1994 and repackaged by BMG Canada as Beginnings, 1945-1949 in 1996.
By the end of the 1940s, however, Peterson had all but exhausted the possibilities of the limited jazz market in Canada. In September 1949, at the suggestion of the American impresario Norman Granz, he made his US debut as a "surprise" guest at a concert of Jazz at the Philharmonic - an all-star troupe of American musicians - in Carnegie Hall, New York. Peterson's brief performance caused a sensation, launching the pianist, then 24, on an international career of remarkable productivity and great distinction. He would maintain his home in Canada, however, moving in 1958 from Montréal to Toronto and later to nearby Mississauga.
With Granz now his manager, Peterson began in 1950 to tour with Jazz at the Philharmonic. His bravura performances, both in concert and on record, immediately captured the imagination of the American public, as witness his first-place showing during the early 1950s in readers' polls conducted by the Chicago jazz magazine Down Beat. He made his first US recordings for Granz's label, Verve, in 1950 with Ray Brown as his bassist; Brown would be a stalwart of the pianist's working trio for the next 15 years, with a guitarist - Barney Kessel or Herb Ellis - as the third member until 1958, and a drummer, Ed Thigpen, thereafter.
The Peterson trio of this period was celebrated for its seemingly telepathic sense of interplay and for its collective virtuosity, as documented by its many concert and club recordings for Verve, perhaps most notably Night Train (1962). Peterson subsequently worked with a variety of bassists, guitarists and drummers; in the 1970s he performed almost exclusively as a solo pianist before returning to the small ensemble format. He maintained a rigorous international touring schedule well into the 1980s but reduced his itinerary dramatically after a stroke in 1993 affected his use of his left hand.
Peterson continued to record, however, and by 2001 had completed more than 130 albums under his own name, principally for Verve (1950-64), MPS (1967-71), Pablo (1972-86) and Telarc (beginning in 1990). He also made recordings in the 1950s and 1960s for Verve as an accompanist to Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Lester Young and others; many of his own recordings from the 1970s for Pablo found him in collaboration with Fitzgerald and such other major figures as Count Basie, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie and Stéphane Grappelli. Inevitably, his sensitivity in these supporting roles has been overshadowed by his virtuosity as a soloist.
Peterson's other activities in music were similarly undervalued by his pre-eminence as a pianist. He was, for example, known to sing in a smooth, relaxed style similar to that of Nat King Cole. As a composer, he wrote and recorded a variety of his own jazz themes including the popular Hymn to Freedom, which celebrated the US civil rights movement of the 1960s. His most significant work was The Canadiana Suite (1963), an eight-part programmatic survey of the country's distinguishing features, including Wheatland (the Prairies) and Land of the Misty Giants (the Rocky Mountains). In addition to Peterson's trio recording in 1964 for Limelight, the suite has been arranged for big band by both Phil NIMMONS and Ron COLLIER and for orchestra by Rick Wilkins. Peterson also composed The African Suite (1979), A Royal Wedding Suite (1981), Trail of Dreams: A Canadian Suite (2000) and the score to the Canadian feature film The Silent Partner (1977).
In the field of education, Peterson operated the Advanced School of Contemporary Music in Toronto from 1960 to 1962 with Nimmons, Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen; several Canadian pianists studied with him at this time, including Brian Browne, Wray Downes and Bill King. He was also present at the inception of the Banff (Centre for the Arts) Jazz Workshop in 1974 and taught occasionally as an adjunct professor of music at York University in the late 1980s.
Peterson's influence on his fellow musicians more generally is difficult to estimate. While he was an early inspiration to many pianists, his extraordinary level of skill made his playing exceedingly difficult to emulate directly. Moreover, his approach to jazz piano was shaped by a transitional period in the music's history, the 1940s, rather than by any specific style. Paradoxically, his greatest strength, his technique, brought him his greatest criticism, in brief that his performances - for all of their facility - lacked a certain emotional warmth.
Peterson was one of Canada's most honoured musicians. He was appointed an Officer in the ORDER OF CANADA in 1972 (elevated to Companion in 1984) and made an Officer in the Order of Arts and Letters in France in 1989. He also received honorary doctorates from several Canadian and US universities and held the chancellorship at York University from 1991 to 1994. The FESTIVAL INTERNATIONAL DE JAZZ DE MONTRÉAL established an annual Prix Oscar-Peterson in 1990 for Canadian musicians of note, and Concordia University named a concert hall in his honour in 1998.
Peterson was inducted into to the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1978 and received a "lifetime achievement" award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, parent body to the (US) Grammy Awards, in 1997. Several of his recordings won individual Grammies for solo or group performance: The Trio in 1975, The Giants in 1978, Oscar Peterson Jam at Montreux '77 in 1979, Jousts in 1980 and Live at the Blue Note in 1991. He also received a Juno in 1987 for the album If You Could See Me Now. In 1993, Peterson was awarded the Glenn GOULD Prize, whose namesake should be considered his only rival among Canadian pianists of international renown.