Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Peterson, Oscar (Emmanuel)

Pianist and composer Oscar Peterson blended the sensibilities of bebop and the blues in a virtuosic sound all his own. A disciple of Art Tatum, he never allowed his own towering technical prowess to overshadow the accomplishments of musicians he admired. His sound was equally at home with a symphony orchestra, his own trios, or alongside the likes of Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong.

Oscar Emmanuel Peterson was born on August 15, 1925 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada to Daniel and Kathleen Peterson. Daniel, a porter for the Canadian Pacific Railroad and an amateur pianist, wanted his children to share his love for music. At the age of five, Oscar began to play both piano and trumpet, but a bout of tuberculosis at age seven led him to concentrate on the piano.

A strict disciplinarian, Daniel gave his children musical assignments each time he left on a trip for the railway. Oscar later credited his father with instilling in him the art of discipline and hard work, and when not playing baseball the boy spent hours practicing the piano. He received early training from his sister Daisy, who introduced him to the fundamentals of classical technique and repertoire.



             Oscar Peterson (with Jimmy Lyon)
                      Photo by Ron Hudson


Growing up in the Little Burgundy neighborhood of Montreal, Peterson was exposed to thriving jazz culture of the era. He recalled sneaking downstairs while his parents were sleeping so he could listen to Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Artie Shaw on the radio A key early influence on Peterson was pianist Art Tatum, whose florid, imaginative style dazzled fans and musicians alike. Peterson was first exposed to Tatum as a teenager, when his father played him one of the elder pianist's records.

"I remember saying, 'Hey, that's wild. Who are those guys?'" Peterson told National Public Radio's Bob Edwards in 2003. When his father responded that all of the sounds on the recording were produced by only one man at the keyboard, "I didn't believe him for a while," Peterson said. The boy was so awestruck after hearing the record that he didn’t touch the piano for over a week.

At the age of fourteen, Peterson began to study with noted classical pianist Paul de Marky. Unlike many classical teachers at the time, de Marky did not discourage the boy's interest in jazz. A first prize on the Ken Soble amateur radio show led to the opportunity to perform on a weekly broadcast on CKAC in Montreal, just as his idol Tatum had done in his teens in Ohio. In his final years of high school, Peterson also performed with trumpeter Maynard Ferguson in an ensemble called The Montreal High School Victory Serenaders.

Peterson's weekly radio broadcasts led to other opportunities to perform on shows such as The Happy Gangand The Light Up and Listen Hour. In 1942, Peterson joined the Johnny Holmes Orchestra, which at the time was one of Canada’s most popular jazz ensembles. In 1947, Peterson formed his first trio with bassist Ozzie Roberts and drummer Clarence Jones, and the group regularly performed at the Alberta Lounge, a popular club in Montreal.

While performing at the Alberta Lounge, Peterson first met promoter Norman Granz, the founder of Verve Records. In 1944, Granz had begun to series of all-star concerts at the Philharmonic Hall in Los Angeles. These concerts spawned the popular "Jazz at the Philharmonic” (JATP) series of national and international tours and recordings, which provided work for many of the Swing era's greatest musicians in the postwar period.

Granz discovered Peterson in an odd way. Granz was in a cab being taken to a Montreal airport, when he heard Peterson on the radio, playing live at the Alberta Lounge. Granz was so impressed that he insisted the driver take him to the club to meet the talented pianist. Peterson and Granz began an enduring working relationship that lasted for years. The 24-year-old Peterson made his debut at New York's Carnegie Hall on September 18, 1949 as a "special guest" at a Granz-organized JATP concert with bassist Ray Brown, but was uncredited on the bill due to musicians' union restrictions.

Peterson traveled frequently with the JATP roadshow, which led to opportunities to record and perform with other JATP members, like tenor saxophonist Lester Young. In 1953, he formed a trio, as Tatum had done, with Brown on bass and guitarist Herb Ellis. Ellis left the trio in 1958 and was replaced by drummer Ed Thigpen, who performed with the ensemble until 1965.

On September 13, 1952, Peterson returned to Carnegie Hall with the JATP and performed "Tenderly” as part of a special feature at the concert for his trio. He begins the introduction with subtle ornamentations before promptly going into several rapid lines. The simplicity of the backing provided by guitarist Barney Kessel and bassist Ray Brown enhances Peterson's raucous but gentle performance.

The fifties were a time of intense musical activity for Peterson, as he traveled with the JATP and recorded frequently with his own trio and with other Granz-associated artists, such as Lester Young, Stan Getz, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. Highlights from this period include his July, 1952 version of "Stormy Weather" with Billie Holiday, his November, 1952 recording with Young of "There Will Never Be Another You," his trio's October 10, 1957 recording with Getz of "Pennies from Heaven," and his October, 1957 album with Louis Armstrong.

After settling into Toronto in 1958, Peterson, along with Brown, Thigpen, trombonist Butch Watanabe and composer Phil Nimmons founded the Advanced School of Contemporary Music. The school offered classes in improvisation and tried to communicate a sense of the jazz tradition. Peterson and his colleagues eventually found that the school demanded too much of their time and decided to abandon the project after only three years.

In 1964, Peterson released his Canadiana Suite, a series of eight compositions that pays homage to his native Canada. On “Wheatland,” Peterson displays a deeply refined feel for lyrical sophistication in his solo. The understated accompaniment of Brown and Thigpen serves to cast Peterson’s performance in high relief.

Peterson toured the world through the next decade. In 1972, he began to appear more often as a concert soloist, and also worked in television, and produced his own series in 1974 and 1978. Also in the 1970s, he performed with symphony orchestras and in duos with trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie, and guitarist Joe Pass. He and Gillespie recorded a memorable duo album for Granz's Pablo label in London in 1974, which included their rendition of Juan Tizol's "Caravan."

In 1981, Peterson released the album Nigerian Marketplace. Initially conceived as an homage to South African leader Nelson Mandela, Peterson developed the title track into the first of eight movements in his "Africa Suite." Peterson first recorded Nigerian Marketplace at the 1981 Montreux Jazz Festival.

On "Nigerian Marketplace," Peterson begins the song by playing sparsely, allowing bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen to take center stage with the strong, lingering melody. The song slowly builds in tempo, letting Pederson showcase a powerful solo full of harmonic complexity.

Beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Peterson limited his touring schedule to focus on composing. Later in his life, Peterson developed an interest in electronic instruments, building a large collection of equipment for use in creating film scores and to refresh his musical ideas.

From 1991 to 1994, Peterson served as the chancellor of York University in Toronto. In 1993, he suffered a severe stroke which significantly weakened the left side of his body. The injury took him away from performing for two years, but he eventually overcame the injury and resumed performing. In 1997, he performed and recorded with his protégé pianist Benny Green. Also in 1997, Peterson received a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement and the International Jazz Hall of Fame Award.

A 2003 performance by Peterson was recorded on video and released on DVD as A Night In Vienna. The concert featured Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, guitarist Ulf Wakenius, and drummer Martin Drew. Towards the end of his career, Peterson continued to tour the United States and Europe, though usually for only one month a year.

Peterson ultimately succumbed to kidney failure on December 23, 2007 at the age of 82 at his home in Mississauga, Canada. Peterson is survived by his fourth wife, Kelly Peterson and their daughter Celine. Peterson had also had six children from his first and third marriages: Lyn, Sharon, Gay, Oscar Jr., Norman and Joel.

Select Discography

As Oscar Peterson

Oscar Peterson at Carnegie Hall (1950)

Oscar Peterson Plays Duke Ellington (1952)

The Jazz Soul of Oscar Peterson (1959)

The Sound of the Trio (1961)

Night Train (1962)

Canadiana Suite (1964)

Tracks (1970)

The Oscar Peterson Big 6 at Montreux (1975)

Nigerian Marketplace (1981)

Live at the Blue Note (1990)

Oscar In Paris (1996)

A Night In Vienna (2004)

With Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook (1957)

Ella at the Opera House (1957)

Ella in Rome: The Birthday Concert (1958)

With Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong

Ella And Louis (1956)

Ella And Louis Again (1957)

With Dizzy Gillespie

Oscar Peterson and Dizzy Gillespie (1974)

The Trumpet Summit Meets The Oscar Peterson Big 4 (1980)

With Benny Green

Oscar And Benny (1998)

With Coleman Hawkins

The Genius of Coleman Hawkins (1957)

Coleman Hawkins Encounters Ben Webster (1957)

With Sarah Vaughan

How Long Has This Been Going On? (1978)

Linger Awhile (Live at Newport and More) (1978)

Contributor: Eric Wendell