|Oscar Emmanuel Peterson|
August 15, 1925|
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
December 23, 2007 (aged 82)|
|Labels||RCA Victor, Mercury, MPS, Pablo, Telarc, Verve|
|Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Ray Brown, Clark Terry, Roy Eldridge, Herb Ellis, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Norman Granz, Benny Green, Coleman Hawkins, Barney Kessel, Milt Jackson, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, Joe Pass, Ben Webster, Ulf Wakenius|
Oscar Emmanuel Peterson, CC, CQ, OOnt (August 15, 1925 - December 23, 2007) was a Canadian jazz pianist and composer. He was called the "Maharaja of the keyboard" by Duke Ellington, but simply "O.P." by his friends. He released over 200 recordings, won eight Grammy Awards, and received numerous other awards and honours. He is considered one of the greatest jazz pianists, and played thousands of concerts worldwide in a career lasting more than 60 years.
Peterson was born to immigrants from the West Indies; his father worked as a porter for Canadian Pacific Railway. Peterson grew up in the neighbourhood of Little Burgundy in Montreal, Quebec. It was in this predominantly black neighbourhood that he found himself surrounded by the jazz culture that flourished in the early 20th century. At the age of five, Peterson began honing his skills with the trumpet and piano. However, a bout of tuberculosis when he was seven prevented him from playing the trumpet again, so he directed all his attention to the piano. His father, Daniel Peterson, an amateur trumpeter and pianist, was one of his first music teachers, and his sister Daisy taught young Oscar classical piano. Peterson was persistent at practising scales and classical études daily, and developed his virtuosity thanks to such arduous practice.
As a child, Peterson also studied with Hungarian-born pianist Paul de Marky, a student of István Thomán, who was himself a pupil of Franz Liszt, so his early training was predominantly based on classical piano. Meanwhile, he was captivated by traditional jazz and especially boogie-woogie, and learned several ragtime pieces. At that time Peterson was called "the Brown Bomber of the Boogie-Woogie".
At the age of nine Peterson played piano with control that impressed professional musicians. For many years his piano studies included four to six hours of daily practice. Only in his later years did he decrease his practice to just one or two hours daily. In 1940, at fourteen years of age, Peterson won the national music competition organized by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. After that victory, he dropped out of the High School of Montreal, where he played in a band with Maynard Ferguson, and became a professional pianist working for a weekly radio show and playing at hotels and music halls.
Some of the artists who influenced Peterson's music during the earlier type of years were Teddy Wilson, Nat King Cole, James P. Johnson, and Art Tatum, to whom many compared Peterson in later years. One of his earliest exposures to Tatum's musical talents came in his teen years when his father played a recording of Tatum's "Tiger Rag" for him. Peterson was so intimidated by what he heard that he became disillusioned about his own playing, to the extent of refusing to play the piano at all for several weeks. In his own words, "Tatum scared me to death", and Peterson was "never cocky again" about his mastery at the piano. Tatum was a model for Peterson's musicianship during the 1940s and 1950s. Tatum and Peterson eventually became good friends, although Peterson was always shy about being compared with Tatum and rarely played the piano in Tatum's presence.
Peterson also credited his sister—a piano teacher in Montreal who also taught several other Canadian jazz musicians—with being an important teacher and influence on his career. Under his sister's tutelage, Peterson expanded into classical piano training and broadened his range while mastering the core classical pianism from scales to preludes and fugues by Johann Sebastian Bach.
Building on Tatum's pianism and aesthetics, Peterson also absorbed Tatum's musical influences, notably from piano concertos by Sergei Rachmaninoff. Rachmaninoff's harmonizations, as well as direct quotations from his 2nd Piano Concerto, are scattered throughout many recordings by Peterson, including his work with the most familiar formulation of the Oscar Peterson Trio, with bassist Ray Brown and guitarist Herb Ellis. During the 1960s and 1970s Peterson made numerous trio recordings highlighting his piano performances; they reveal more of his eclectic style, absorbing influences from various genres of jazz, popular, and classical music.
An important step in Peterson's career was joining impresario Norman Granz's labels (especially Verve) and Granz's "Jazz at the Philharmonic" project. Granz discovered Peterson in a peculiar manner. As the impresario was being taken to Montreal airport by cab, the radio was playing a live broadcast of Peterson at a local night club. Granz was so smitten by what he heard that he ordered the driver to take him to the club so that he could meet the pianist. In 1949, Granz introduced Peterson in New York City at a Jazz at the Philharmonic show at Carnegie Hall.
So was born a lasting relationship: Granz remained Peterson's manager for most of his career. This was more than a managerial relationship; Peterson praised Granz for standing up for him and other black jazz musicians in the segregationist south of the 1950s and 1960s. For example, in the documentary video Music in the Key of Oscar, Peterson tells how Granz stood up to a gun-toting southern policeman who wanted to stop the trio from using "white-only" taxis.
In the course of his career, Peterson developed a reputation as a technically brilliant and melodically inventive jazz pianist and became a regular on Canadian radio from the 1940s. His name was already recognized in the United States. However, his 1949 debut at Carnegie Hall was uncredited: owing to union restrictions, his appearance could not be billed. Through Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic, he was able to play with the major jazz artists of the time.
Peterson made numerous duo performances and recordings with bassists Ray Brown, Sam Jones, and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, guitarists Joe Pass, Irving Ashby, Herb Ellis, and Barney Kessel, pianists Count Basie,Herbie Hancock,Benny Green, and Oliver Jones, trumpeters Clark Terry and Louis Armstrong, and many other important jazz players. His 1950s duo recordings with Ray Brown mark the formation of one of the longest lasting partnerships in the history of jazz.
Peterson redefined the jazz trio by bringing the musicianship of all three members to the highest level. The trio with Ray Brown and Herb Ellis was, in his own words, "the most stimulating" and productive setting for public performances as well as in studio recordings. In the early 1950s, Peterson began performing with Ray Brown and Charlie Smith as the Oscar Peterson Trio. Shortly afterward the drummer Smith was replaced by guitarist Irving Ashby, formerly of the Nat King Cole Trio. Ashby, who was a swing guitarist, was soon replaced by Kessel. Kessel tired of touring after a year, and was succeeded by Ellis. As Ellis was white, Peterson's trios were racially integrated, a controversial move at the time that was fraught with difficulties with segregationist whites and blacks.
The Way You Look Tonight sample
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Oscar Peterson at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival is widely regarded as the landmark album in Peterson's career, and one of the most influential trios in jazz. Their last recording, On the Town with the Oscar Peterson Trio, recorded live at the Town Tavern in Toronto, captured a remarkable degree of emotional as well as musical understanding between three players. All three musicians were equal contributors involved in a highly sophisticated improvisational interplay. When Ellis left the group in 1958, Peterson and Brown believed they could not adequately replace Ellis. Ellis was replaced by drummer Ed Thigpen in 1959. Brown and Thigpen worked with Peterson on his albums Night Train and Canadiana Suite. Brown and Thigpen left in 1965 and were replaced by bassist Sam Jones and drummer Louis Hayes (and later, drummer Bobby Durham). The trio performed together until 1970. In 1969 Peterson recorded Motions and Emotions, featuring orchestral arrangements of pop songs such as The Beatles' "Yesterday" and "Eleanor Rigby". In the fall of 1970, Peterson's trio released the album Tristeza on Piano. Jones and Durham left in 1970.
In the 1970s Peterson formed another trio with guitarist Pass and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen on bass. This trio emulated the success of the 1950s trio with Brown and Ellis, gave acclaimed performances at numerous festivals, and made best-selling recordings—most notably The Trio, which won the 1974 Grammy for Best Jazz Performance by a Group, and the 1978 double album recorded live in Paris. On April 22, 1978, Peterson performed in the interval act for the Eurovision Song Contest 1978, broadcast live from the Palais des congrès de Paris. In 1974 Oscar added British drummer Martin Drew, and this quartet toured and recorded extensively worldwide. Pass said in a 1976 interview: "The only guys I've heard who come close to total mastery of their instruments are Art Tatum and Peterson".
A quartet was a less permanent setting for Peterson, after the trio or duo, as it was hard to find equally powerful musicians available for a tightly knit arrangement with him. After the loss of Ellis his next trio eventually consisted of a drummer instead of a guitarist—first Gene Gammage for a brief time, then Thigpen. In this group Peterson became the dominant soloist. Later members of the group were Louis Hayes, Bobby Durham, Ray Price, Sam Jones, George Mraz, Martin Drew, Terry Clarke and Lorne Lofsky.
Peterson often formed a quartet by adding a fourth player to his existing trios. He was open to experimental collaborations with jazz stars, such as saxophonist Ben Webster, trumpeter Clark Terry, and vibraphonist Milt Jackson among others. In 1961, the Peterson trio with Jackson recorded the album Very Tall.
From the late 1950s, when Peterson gained worldwide recognition, he played in a variety of settings: solo, duo, trio, quartet, small bands, and big bands. His solo recordings were rare until Exclusively for My Friends (MPS), a series of albums that were his response to pianists such as Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner.
He recorded for Pablo, led by Norman Granz, after the label was founded in 1973. In the 1980s he played in a duo with pianist Herbie Hancock. In the late 1980s and 1990s, after a stroke, he made performances and recordings with his protégé Benny Green. In the 1990s and 2000s he recorded several albums accompanied by a combo for Telarc.
Peterson wrote pieces for piano, trio, quartet, and big band. He also wrote several songs, and made recordings as a singer. His best-known compositions may be "Canadiana Suite" and "Hymn to Freedom", the latter composed in the 1960s and inspired by the civil rights movement in the United States.
Peterson taught piano and improvisation in Canada, mainly in Toronto. With associates, he started and headed the Advanced School of Contemporary Music in Toronto for five years during the 1960s, but it closed because concert touring called him and his associates away, and it did not have government funding. Later, he mentored the York University jazz program and was the Chancellor of the entire university for several years in the early 1990s. He also published his original jazz piano etudes for practice. He additionally asked his students to study the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, especially The Well-Tempered Clavier, the Goldberg Variations, and The Art of Fugue, considering these piano pieces essential for every serious pianist. Among his students were pianists Benny Green and Oliver Jones.
Peterson had arthritis since his youth, and in later years could hardly button his shirt. Never slender, his weight increased to 125 kg (276 lb), hindering his mobility. He had hip replacement surgery in the early 1990s. Although the surgery was successful, his mobility was still inhibited. Somewhat later, in 1993, Peterson suffered a serious stroke that weakened his left side and sidelined him for two years. Also in 1993, incoming Prime Minister and longtime Peterson fan and friend Jean Chrétien offered Peterson the position of Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario, but, according to Chrétien, he declined, citing the health problems from his recent stroke.
After the stroke, Peterson recuperated for about two years. He gradually regained mobility and some control of his left hand. However, his virtuosity was never restored to the original level, and his playing after his stroke relied principally on his right hand. In 1995 he returned to public performances on a limited basis, and also made several live and studio recordings for Telarc. In 1997 he received a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement and an International Jazz Hall of Fame Award. His friend, Canadian politician and amateur pianist Bob Rae, said that "a one-handed Oscar was better than just about anyone with two hands."
In 2003, Peterson recorded the DVD A Night in Vienna for Verve, with Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, Ulf Wakenius and Martin Drew. He continued to tour the U.S. and Europe, though at most one month a year, with a couple of days' rest between concerts to recover his strength. His accompanists were Wakenius (guitar), Pederson or David Young (bass), and Alvin Queen (drums).
Peterson's health declined rapidly in 2007. He had to cancel his performance at the 2007 Toronto Jazz Festival and his attendance at a June 8, 2007, Carnegie Hall all-star performance in his honour, owing to illness. On December 23, 2007, Peterson died of kidney failure at his home in Mississauga, Ontario.
Peterson was married four times: to Lillie Fraser (1944, two sons, three daughters, marriage dissolved); Sandra King (marriage 1958, dissolved 1976); Charlotte Huber (1977, one daughter; marriage dissolved); and Kelly Green (1987, one daughter).
He had seven children, the youngest of whom was Céline (born 1991), his daughter by Kelly Green.
Peterson was a smoker, both of cigarettes and the pipe, and regularly tried to break the habit; but each time he stopped smoking he put on weight. Peterson loved to eat and cook, and remained a very large man throughout his entire life.