OSCAR PETERSON: ´the man with four hands´.
by Norman Warwick
Oscar Emmanuel Peterson, CC, CQ, OOnt, jazz pianist, composer, educator was born 15th August 1925 in Montréal, QC; died 23rd December 2007 in Mississauga, Ontario. he remains, though, one of Canada’s most honoured musicians.
Oscar Peterson (left) is still widely regarded as one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time. He was renowned for his remarkable speed and dexterity, meticulous and ornate technique, and dazzling, swinging style. He earned the nicknames ´the brown bomber of boogie-woogie´ and ´master of swing´- A prolific recording artist, he typically released several albums a year from the 1950s until his death. He also appeared on more than 200 albums by other artists, including Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong, who called him ´the man with four hands´. His sensitivity in these supporting roles, as well as his acclaimed compositions such as Canadiana Suite and Hymn to Freedom, was overshadowed by his stunning virtuosity as a soloist. Also a noted jazz educator and advocate for racial equality, Peterson won a Juno Award and eight Grammy Awards, including one for lifetime achievement. The first recipient of the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement, he was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall Of Fame and the International Jazz Hall of Fame. He was also made an Officer and then Companion of the Order of Canada, and an Officer in the Order of Arts and Letters in France, among many other honours.
Oscar Peterson was the fourth of five children. He was raised in the poor St. Henri neighbourhood of Montreal, also known as Little Burgundy. His parents hailed from St. Kitts and the British Virgin Islands. His mother, Kathleen, was a domestic worker. His father, Daniel, was a boatswain in the Merchant Marines who became a porter with the Canadian Pacific Railway. A self-taught amateur organist and strict disciplinarian, he led the family band in concerts at churches and community halls. He insisted that all of the Peterson children learn piano and a brass instrument. Each in turn taught the next youngest child.
Oscar’s first instructor was his sister, Daisy. She became a respected piano teacher in Montreal’s Black community. Her later pupils included the jazz musicians Oliver Jones, Joe Sealy and Reg Wilson. Peterson’s brother, Chuck, became a professional trumpet player. His other sister, May, taught piano. She also worked for a time as Oscar’s personal assistant.
Peterson studied piano during his youth and teens with teachers of widely different backgrounds. At the age of 12, he briefly took piano lessons from Louis Hooper, a classically trained Canadian veteran of the Harlem jazz scene of the 1920s. Later, Peterson attended the Conservatoire de musique du Québec à Montréal (right). At 14, he studied with Paul de Marky, a Hungarian concert pianist in the 19th-century tradition of Franz Liszt. Peterson was also a classmate of trumpet player Maynard Ferguson. They played together in a dance band led by Maynard’s brother, Percy.
At age 14, Peterson entered an amateur contest sponsored by radio personality Ken Soble. (He was encouraged to enter by his sister Daisy, who also helped pay for his studies.) Oscar won the $250 first prize. Shortly thereafter, he began his own weekly radio show, Fifteen Minutes Piano Rambling, on the Montreal station CKAC. In 1941, he was featured on CBM’s Rhythm Time. By 1945, he was heard nationally on the CBC’s Light Up And Listen and The Happy Gang.
Peterson’s growing command of the keyboard reflected his classical background. However, the influence of the popular American pianists Nat King Cole, Teddy Wilson and especially his idol, Art Tatum (left), steered him towards a future in jazz. Even a chronic case of arthritis, which first became apparent in his teens, could not slow his progress. During his teen years, he received offers from Jimmie Lunceford and Count Basie to move to the US and join their bands. His parents felt he was too young and wouldn’t allow it.
Oscar Peterson emerged as a celebrity in Montreal’s music scene in the early 1940s. He dropped out of high school at age 17 to play as a featured soloist in Johnny Holmes’s popular (and otherwise white) dance band from 1943 to 1947. Peterson’s father was sceptical of letting his son leave school to pursue a career in music. He reportedly told Oscar, “If you’re going to go out there and be a piano player, don’t just be another one. Be the best.”
Peterson made his first recordings for RCA Victor in March 1945. These early releases, notably I Got Rhythm and The Sheik of Araby, reveal the talent for boogie-woogie that earned him the nickname ´the brown bomber of boogie-woogie´. They also reveal the extraordinary technique that would characterize his playing throughout his career. Peterson made sixteen 78s (32 songs in total) for RCA Victor between 1945 and 1949, The last of these suggest the influence of bebop. These songs were compiled on CD by BMG France in 1994; they were repackaged by BMG Canada in 1996 as The Complete Young Oscar Peterson (1945–1949).
The popularity of these records established Peterson as the first jazz star that Canada could truly call its own. His exposure on CBC Radio and his two tours of Western Canada in 1946 also contributed to his growing fame. By 1947, he was headlining Montreal’s Alberta Lounge with his own trio. It consisted of Austin “Ozzie” Roberts on bass and Clarence Jones on drums. (Guitarist Ben Johnson occasionally subbed in for Jones.) The trio was heard on Montreal radio station CFCF in broadcasts from the lounge. The other recorded document of Peterson’s Montreal years is the soundtrack for Norman McLaren’s innovative and award-winning National Film Board short, Begone Dull Care (1949).
By the end of the 1940s, Peterson had all but exhausted the limited jazz market in Canada. Word of his talent had spread to the US.
Following a tour to Montreal, Dizzy Gillespie told composer and record producer Leonard Feather, ´There’s a pianist up here who’s just too much. You’ve never heard anything like it! We gotta put him in concert´.
However, Feather took no action. Similarly, American jazz impresario and record producer Norman Granz heard about Peterson through Coleman Hawkins and Billy Strayhorn. But Granz also failed to reach out to the Canadian pianist until a 1949 visit to Montreal. Granz was on his way to the airport to leave the city when he heard Peterson playing on the radio from the Alberta Lounge. He told the cab driver to take him there immediately.
Granz (right) became Peterson’s manager. He decided to introduce Peterson to American audiences at a Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) performance at New York’s Carnegie Hall on 18 September 1949. The lineup for the show included such jazz greats as Charlie Parker, Buddy Rich, Roy Eldridge and Lester Young . Granz couldn’t secure Peterson a work visa in time for the show. So, he planted him in the audience and brought the six-foot-three, 240-pound 24-year-old onstage as a surprise guest. Peterson’s performance with bassist Ray Brown caused a sensation. DownBeat magazine wrote that it ´stopped the concert dead cold in its tracks´. The appearance was a watershed moment for Peterson. It marked the beginning of an international career of remarkable productivity and distinction.
Norman Granz became a close friend and was Peterson’s manager until 1988. Under his guidance, Peterson toured with Jazz at the Philharmonic from 1950 to 1952. His bravura performances, both in concert and on record, immediately captured the imagination of the American public. The growth and persistence of Peterson’s popularity was reflected in his first-place standing in the piano category of DownBeat magazine’s readers’ poll 15 times in 23 years. He also won the magazine’s critics’ poll in 1953, in addition to many other such polls.
Peterson made his first American recordings for Granz’s label, Verve, (left) in 1950 with Ray Brown as his bassist. Their version of Tenderly was especially popular. In 1951, Peterson formed a trio with Brown (who would be a stalwart of Peterson’s groups for the next 15 years) and drummer Charlie Smith. Smith was soon replaced by the guitarists Irving Ashby (formerly of the Nat King Cole Trio), Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis, who joined in 1953. The Peterson-Brown-Ellis trio was regarded by many as the best piano-bass-guitar trio of all time. It became renowned for its passionate and spontaneous soloing, as well as its ability to play at breakneck tempos and to tackle complex arrangements.
Peterson toured Europe with JATP in 1952, 1953 and 1954. He returned annually with his trio for many years. They often accompanied the singer Ella Fitzgerald. In 1953, Peterson made the first of many appearances in Japan. In the early 1950s, while playing at a club in Washington, DC, Peterson met his idol, Art Tatum. The two became good friends. Peterson performed at the Montreal, Stratford, Shaw and Vancouver International festivals, and appeared often in Canadian nightclubs. His trio recorded a celebrated LP at Stratford — Oscar Peterson At The Stratford Shakespearean Festival (1956). It also recorded the acclaimed On The Town (1958) at Toronto’s Town Tavern.
Throughout his career, Peterson made Canada his home base. In 1958, he moved from Montreal to Toronto, and later to nearby Mississauga. Also in 1958, Ellis left the trio. In 1959, Peterson changed its composition to piano, bass and drums by adding drummer Ed Thigpen, famous for his sensitivity and meticulous brushwork. The Peterson trio of this period was celebrated for its seemingly telepathic sense of interplay and its virtuosity.
Night Train (1962), recorded with his trio, proved to be one of Peterson’s most commercially successful albums. Canadiana Suite (1964) was one of his most acclaimed. Between 1963 and 1968, he recorded a series of solo albums for MPS called Exclusively For My Friends. Following the departure of Brown and Thigpen in 1965, Peterson added bassist Sam Jones and drummer Louis Hayes. Hayes was replaced in 1967 by Bobby Durham. During the years 1967–71, Peterson recorded for the most part in Villingen, West Germany, for the Saba label (later MPS).
In 1970, Oscar Peterson began to perform solo almost exclusively. He returned to the small ensemble format in 1972 with guitarist Joe Pass and bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen. The success of this trio rivaled that of the Peterson-Brown-Ellis group. The band expanded to a quartet in 1974 with the addition of drummer Martin Drew. In the 1970s, Peterson recorded with such artists as Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie and Stéphane Grappelli (left) on many of his own albums for the Pablo label.
The mid-1970s saw Peterson achieve a high degree of critical acclaim and industry recognition. He had four Grammy Award-winning albums: The Trio (1973), The Giants (1974), Oscar Peterson And The Trumpet Kings – Jousts (1974) and Montreux ’77 (1977). He also released live records of concerts in Tokyo, Amsterdam, Paris, London, Tallinn, The Hague and New York.
photo 7 Despite being afflicted with arthritis since his teens, Peterson maintained a rigorous international touring schedule well into the 1980s. He played and recorded in a duo with pianist Herbie Hancock (right) and made several appearances at the Festival international de jazz de Montreal; these included a concert with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra at the Forum in 1984. He also performed at Ontario Place and Roy Thomson Hall as part of jazz festivals in Toronto. His album If You Could See Me Now (1983), recorded with the quartet of Pass, Ørsted Pedersen and Drew, won a 1987 Juno Award for Best Jazz Album. However, by decade’s end, his arthritis had become increasingly severe. As a result, he reduced his performance schedule to a matter of weeks each year in Europe, Japan and the US.
In 1990, he reunited with the Brown-Ellis trio, producing several acclaimed albums of their performances at the Blue Note club in New York. Live at the Blue Note (1990) and Saturday Night At The Blue Note (1990) won a total of three Grammy Awards. Last Call At The Blue Note (1990) received a Juno Award nomination.
In 1993, several months after having hip replacement surgery, Peterson had a stroke while performing at the Blue Note. His left side was especially affected. He withdrew from commitments and resumed performing gradually after a two-year recovery. A restricted ability in his left hand became noticeable; it greatly reduced the strong contrapuntal quality that he had always played with. Yet he continued to tour, compose and record. According to broadcaster Ross Porter, ´What he was able to achieve, playing with half of what most other pianists had, he was still light years ahead of everyone else´.
Peterson appeared at Carnegie Hall in 1995 and at a tribute to him at New York’s Town Hall in 1996. His album Oscar Peterson Meets Roy Hargrove And Ralph Moore (1996) was nominated for a Juno Award in 1997. He played Massey Hall and Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto, and occasionally at jazz festivals, such as Toronto’s 2001 JVC festival and various European festivals. Also in 2001, he toured Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco. By that time, he had completed more than 130 albums under his own name, mainly for the labels Verve (1950–64), MPS (1967–71), Pablo (1972–86) and Telarc (beginning in 1990).
In 2002, Peterson published his memoir, A Jazz Odyssey: The Life of Oscar Peterson (right). The legendary jazz pianist’s autobiography had been a work in progress for nearly fifteen years and proves to be well worth the wait. As monumental as the man himself and his six-decade career in jazz, A Jazz Odyssey begins with Peterson’s early years in Canada as part of a large family for whom times were often hard, going on to trace in detail not only his musical development but much of the social and political background that underscored it. Peterson’s account focuses on his US debut at Carnegie Hall in 1949 and his startling rise as a presence in American jazz, as both virtuoso soloist and empathetic accompanist. The section on Norman Granz, Peterson’s closest friend and manager from his earliest American days, pays tribute to the late impresario’s ground-breaking achievements as a concert promoter, record producer, and significant civil rights activist, while the large section entitled Jazz People logs Peterson’s warm and often hilarious reminiscences of the innumerable jazz stars he played for and with including Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young and Ella Fitzgerald. three highly successful series for the BBC as a chat-show host on Oscar’s Piano Parties, reflections on the many pianos he has owned and played, and specific aspects of his personal life.
A tribute concert held at Carnegie Hall on 8 June 2007, as part of the Fujitsu Jazz Festival, featured performances by Wynton Marsalis, Marian McPartland, Hank Jones and Clark Terry. Peterson was originally scheduled to appear but bowed out due to frail health. He died of kidney failure in his Mississauga home in December that year.
This week the Hot Biscuits jazz programme revisits the jazz guitar sounds of Simon Goulding and friends plus a selection of various jazz tracks. Let your friends know and tune in on Wednesday, or Thursday at 9pm (GMT+1), or late Saturday at 11pm (GMT+1) at www.fc-radio.co.uk You can find lots of archives of Bewick´s Broadcasts at www.mixcloud.com/stevebewick/