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Oscar Peterson – August 2017 Artist of the Month

Oscar Peterson – August 2017 Artist of the Month

Oscar Peterson’s performing career spanned over five decades, where he built an unparalleled legacy of excellence in recordings and live performances. A virtuoso pianist, he was also a generous and sensitive accompanist and musical partner. He stands as one of the greatest masters of the American Songbook and robust, swinging  jazz.

Oscar Emmanuel Peterson was born in the St. Henri quarter of Montreal on August 15, 1925, son of railway porter Daniel Peterson, of West Indian descent, and Olivia John. His father was a self-taught organist, and the sounds of early jazz were in the neighborhood. Oscar studied both classical piano and trumpet, but a bout of tuberculosis at age seven set his focus on piano. With six hours of practice daily, his musical chops developed quickly. He won a national piano competition from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and starred on a radio show in Montreal as a teenager, becoming known in Canada as “The Brown Bomber of Boogie-Woogie” – a nod to the great boxing champion Joe Louis as well as Oscar’s impressive physical presence (he grew to a solid 6-foot-3). A great challenge in Oscar’s development came when he first heard the prodigious pianist Art Tatum at age 14. “I gave up the piano for two months, and had crying fits” because he felt he could never reach those heights. But he persisted, eventually dropping out of high school and joining the popular Johnny Holmes Orchestra. As the sole black member of the band, he experienced the segregation and discrimination of that era, often having to stay in the band’s bus for meals and sleep. He recorded for Victor in Canada in the late 1940s, displaying elements of Nat King Cole and Teddy Wilson’s swing along with the boogie.

Radio gave Oscar the break he needed to the hit the musical big time in the US and worldwide. In 1947, Norman Granz, the impresario of the celebrated Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) all-star events, was in a taxi en route to Montreal’s Dorval airport when he heard a live set on the car radio by a local cat named Oscar Peterson. Enthralled, he ordered the cabbie to take him to that club; by the end of the night, Granz had arranged for Oscar to be a surprise guest at the next JATP concert. He became an instant star in the troupe, Granz’ favorite pianist alongside Art Tatum himself, and was signed to the new Verve Records label as both leader and side man.

The volume and quality of Oscar’s musical output hit warp speed from the early 1950s on. He recorded a series of Songbooks of the great songwriters, brilliant sets with his incandescent trio of guitarist Herb Ellis with Ray Brown on bass and successors, and a mainstay on classic Verve sessions such as Ella and Louis, and discs from the likes of Benny Carter, Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Stan Getz, Ben Webster, Harry Edison, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, and even Fred Astaire. As Verve’s jazz output slowed under corporate ownership in the 1960s, Oscar recorded a superb series of solo albums, themed My Favorite Instrument, for the German MPS label. Granz formed his own Pablo Records label in 1972, and again Oscar Peterson was a star among stars keeping the flame of classic mainstream jazz strong, often in trio with guitarist Joe Pass and bassist Nils-Henning Orsted-Petersen (no relation!) as well as Ray Brown.

He was felled by a serious stroke in 1993, but returned to performing two years later.  During his recuperation, the Prime Minister of Canada offered him the ceremonial position of Lieutenant Governor of Ontario. He continued his recording legacy from 1995 on with several fine sessions for the audiophile Telarc label. He resumed a limited performing schedule, taking time between concerts to recuperate.  Even with a weakened left hand from the stroke, his sets were major musical events throughout the world. By 2007, however, he was unable to attend even a Carnegie Hall concert in his honor. He passed away at his home outside Toronto of kidney failure at age 82 on December 23, 2007.

His legacy is assured with eight Grammy awards, numerous honors  - especially in his native Canada - and the eternal admiration of the musical world. Duke Ellington called him “the maharajah”; Count Basie put it “Oscar plays the ivory box the best I’ve ever heard”; and Andre Previn proclaimed him “the best” among jazz pianists.  Scott Yanow gives a clear-headed critical summary of Oscar’s jazz: “Peterson was criticized through the years because he used so many notes, didn’t evolve much since the 1950s, and recorded a remarkable number of albums. Perhaps it is because critics ran out of favorable adjectives to use early in his career; certainly it can be said that Peterson played 100 notes when other pianists might have used ten, but all 100 usually fit, and there is nothing wrong with showing off technique when it serves the music.”  Which it assuredly did, and for which we are all grateful.

Here’s a sampling of Oscar Peterson performances and interviews:
From Live at Zardi’s (outstanding 1955 live recording with Herb Ellis and Ray Brown), Honeysuckle Rose:

Live at the 2004 Montreal Jazz Festival (at age 79, after his stroke):

Duet with Sarah Vaughan, 1978, More Than You Know:

from My Favorite Instrument, 1968, Body and Soul:

Piano Styles Demonstration on The Dick Cavett Show:

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