Oscar Peterson was once referred to by Duke Ellington as the” Maharajah of the keyboard.” Peterson was one of most prolific major stars in jazz history, his recording career spanning nearly 60 years.
Inexplicable and inexcusable is the fact that Oscar Peterson has been sometimes looked down on by staunch and stuffy jazz critics for not having a style all his own. While Mr. Peterson was influenced, especially in his early career, by Nat King Cole, Count Basie, Teddy Wilson, James P Johnson, Errol Garner, and Art Tatum, it was just that diverse list of influences that spawned his unique way of melding together elements of Swing, Bop and Blues.
Oscar Peterson possessed incomparable technical prowess and his easy to follow and flowing performances in some ways allowed his popularity as a pianist to eclipse that of his predecessors. He was a man that could make a piano roar as a lion, purr as a kitten, stomp like a bear and flutter like a butterfly all in the space of a few lines and yet never lose one iota of his superb sense of swing. Dan Morgenstern, director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, said, "Any pianist who came after Oscar Peterson would have had to look up to him as a model of all-around musicianship."
A Canadian-born musical prodigy, Oscar Peterson recorded more than 200 albums and won eight Grammy Awards, including one for lifetime achievement in 1997. In 1950 he won Down Beat magazine’s reader’s poll for the first time; he would go on to win it 13 more times, the last in 1972. From the 1950s until his death, he released sometimes four or five albums a year, toured Europe and Japan frequently, and became a big draw at jazz festivals.
Norman Granz, his influential manager and producer, helped Mr. Peterson realize that success, setting loose a flow of records on his own Verve and Pablo labels and establishing him as a favorite in the touring “Jazz at the Philharmonic” concerts in the 1940s and ’50s.
Oscar Peterson eventually became a mainstay of the “Jazz at the Philharmonic” series, which Norman Granz created in the 1940s. In 1949, he was unbilled when he made his debut at Carnegie Hall with the traveling jazz show. Granz simply brought him out and said, " Play whatever you like for as long as you like." That night Peterson became a sensation, which cemented his reputation in the United States and soon throughout the world.
Peterson's mastery of the piano that night astonished those present, including Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and trumpeter Roy Eldridge. A Down Beat critic raved about his performance in the following issue of the jazz magazine, and Peterson soon joined the concert series on a tour of Asia as well as 41 North American cities.
In 1942, Oscar Peterson was known in Canada as the “Brown Bomber of Boogie-Woogie,” an allusion to the nickname of the boxer Joe Louis and also to Mr. Peterson’s physical stature — 6 foot 3 and 250 pounds. Mr. Peterson became the only black member of the Johnny Holmes Orchestra, which toured both Canada and the United States. In parts of the United States, he discovered that he, like other blacks, would not be served in the same hotels and restaurants as the white musicians. Many times they would bring food out to him as he sat in the band’s bus, he recalled.
For a time, Oscar Peterson was so identified with boogie-woogie, a popular dance music, that he was denied wider recognition as a serious jazz musician. But as the story goes it was in 1947 that the jazz impresario Norman Granz was on his way to Montreal’s airport in a taxi when he heard a live broadcast of Peterson playing at a Montreal lounge. He ordered the driver to turn the taxi around and take him to the lounge. There he persuaded Mr. Peterson to move away from boogie-woogie.
Throughout his career Peterson thrived in the trio format. He had perhaps his longest lasting musical relationship with bassist Ray Brown. The two performed together usually in trio form for 15 straight years from 1950 to 1965 and occasionally throughout the decades even into the mid 1990s.
As a solo pianist, Oscar Peterson was sometimes criticized for following too closely in the tradition of Art Tatum, who died in 1956. However he showed far more subtlety as an accompanist to singers such as Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday as well as horn players like Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie. Mr. Peterson can also be heard providing accompaniment on albums by Roy Eldridge, Lionel Hampton, Stan Getz, Benny Carter, Lester Young, Harry Edison, Stuff Smith, Ben Webster, Sonny Stitt, Coleman Hawkins, and Milt Jackson to name a few.
Oscar Emmanuel Peterson was born Aug. 15, 1925, in Montreal to parents from the West Indies. His father, a railroad porter and amateur organist, pushed music on his five children, beating them if they did not play well and criticizing them mercilessly even when they did.
Peterson recalled that after he had started to establish himself, his father once brought home a Tatum recording and said: "You think you're so great. Why don't you put it on?" "So I did," Peterson said. "And of course I was just about flattened. . . . I swear, I didn't play piano for two months afterward, I was so intimidated."
Oscar Peterson began his musical education on trumpet but switched to piano at 5 after developing tuberculosis. An older brother, Fred, had played the piano and passed on his love of jazz before dying from TB.
Peterson said he was at first impatient with the classical repertory required of pianists-in-training. He said he became more amenable when a private music tutor welcomed his interest in jazz, which had grown through popular recordings and broadcasts by such pianists as Tatum, Errol Garner and Teddy Wilson.
In his school, he played in a band with trumpeter Maynard Ferguson and said he liked playing the baby grand piano during lunch hours because it was "the best way to have a bunch of girls come down. I became the guy."
At 14, Peterson won a talent contest on the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. radio network, and that led to a regular engagement on a Montreal radio station for a program called "Fifteen Minutes of Piano Rambling". This in turn led to his aforementioned five-year stint in Johnny Holmes's popular big band.
In 1944, he made his recording debut with boogie-woogie versions of "I Got Rhythm" and "The Sheik of Araby," and he soon began accumulating job offers from U.S. big band leaders including Count Basie and Jimmie Lunceford.
In the mid-1960s, the Peterson-Brown-Thigpen trio broke apart. Peterson remained the star attraction in later trio incarnations, including one from the 1970s with guitarist Joe Pass and bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen. He won his first Grammy, in 1974, for a recording with Pass and Pederson called "The Trio." Two albums in the early 1990s reuniting Peterson with Ellis and Brown also won Grammys.
Peterson formed a piano duet with Herbie Hancock in the early 1980s but later slimmed down to a solo show, once telling The Washington Post he felt less restricted harmonically when playing alone. "The bass player would always wonder where we are going," he said.
Beyond the piano, Peterson branched out as a singer on a 1965 tribute album to Nat "King" Cole, and reviewers noted that he bore a vocal style strikingly similar to Cole's. He also wrote several ambitious pieces of music, including "Canadiana Suite" (1964) and "Africa Suite" (1983). He composed for film and hosted several television shows about jazz, including one for the British Broadcasting Corp. in 1974 called "Oscar Peterson's Piano Party."
Oscar Peterson was playing at the Blue Note club in New York when he suffered a stroke in 1993. He underwent a year of physical therapy before launching his career again on the recording and concert circuit.
Pianist Benny Green, a protege who recorded the 1997 duo album "Oscar and Benny," told the Los Angeles Times about his mentor: "Oscar told me that the first thing he does when he sits down at a piano is to gauge the key drop -- how far the keys on an individual instrument need to be depressed before the hammer hits the strings.
"He says -- and he makes it sound so simple -- that once he scopes that out, then he's in complete control of the piano. For the rest of us, of course, there are a lot more steps involved."
Oscar Peterson was a towering figure in the literal sense, standing over six feet tall and weighing more than 250 pounds. Ray Brown once spoke of Peterson's "drill sergeant" tendencies, but audience members found him, by and large, a serene and engaging performer -- except when interrupted by loud talk or clinking glasses. He was known to have barked at one offender, "Would you act this way at a classical concert?"
As he told Down Beat in 1997: “When I sit down to the piano, I don’t want any scuffling. I want it to be a love affair.”
Oscar Peterson’s love affair ended December 23, 2007 at his home in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga. The cause of death was kidney failure. Survivors included his fourth wife, Kelly Peterson, and their daughter, Celine. He had six children from his first and third marriages: Lyn, Sharon, Gay, Oscar Jr., Norman and Joel.
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