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Home » On the Cover » Oscar Peterson: The Life & Times of a Jazz Legend

Oscar Peterson: The Life & Times of a Jazz Legend


Last year, Exhibition Hall A in Ottawa’s National Library of Canada featured a technologically impressive display devoted entirely to the country’s ambassador of jazz, Oscar Peterson, Local 406-119 (Montreal, Quebec) and Local 149 (Toronto, Ontario). The exhibit showcased the Montreal native’s impact on six decades of jazz music. Historic programs and photographs of early concerts shared space with computerized displays. Interactive CD-ROMs performed rapid-fire real-time transcriptions of Peterson’s improvisations, while Yamaha digital pianos offered a virtual over-the-shoulder view of his phenomenal keyboard technique.

No small tribute, all of this, for a jazz pianist who might easily have never even become one. Oscar Peterson’s career actually started off radically different from where it eventually led, beginning firmly in the classics: Beethoven, Bach, and all those endless technical finger exercises, under the tutelage of Hungarian classical pianist Paul deMarky.

Classical Foundations

“I only first really heard jazz somewhere between the ages of seven and 10,” explains Peterson, who was born in 1925 into a musical home. “My older brother Fred, who was actually a better pianist than I was, started playing various new tunes–well, they were new for me, anyway–and I didn’t know what they were at first, but I knew I liked them. They turned out to be jazz tunes that were popular at the time: Duke Ellington and Art Tatum, who frightened me to death with his technique. So, there really wasn’t a classic ‘defining moment;’ I just got into it the more I listened to the likes these performers, and decided that was what I wanted to do.”

Peterson feels quite strongly that his background of classical training was invaluable in helping his jazz technique and interpretation skill.” “Harmonically and rhythmically, it’s indispensable. I recommend it today any time I hold a seminar.” At York University–one of 16 institutions which have bestowed upon Peterson honorary degrees, and of which he is currently chancellor–he encouraged all the pianists to study classically first. “It gives you a much better insight into the instrument,” he says.

The early classical training also aids another facet of Peterson’s career, which he says is growing in importance as he gets older. “Traveling by air these days is just so stressful,” he explains. “I’m interested in doing more music writing, and I’m devoting more time to that than I have before.”

This, of course, is not meant to imply a new development: Oscar Peterson the pianist has long been known to his fans as Oscar Peterson the composer. His countless waltzes and ballads have become the staple of pianists everywhere; he has undertaken commissions for ballet scores and televised productions; and “Trail of Dreams Suite,” a musical depiction of the coast-to-coast Trans-Canada Trail, was premiered in April 2000. An earlier composition, “Hymn to Freedom,” became an anthem for the US civil rights movement in the 1960s, to which Peterson admits no conscious effort on his part.

Changing Times

“I wrote ‘Hymn to Freedom’ because my then dear friend and manager Norman Granz wanted something for a record date that had a true blues feeling. I sat down, started to play, and we recorded it with the trio. The lyrics were only added later. So, at the time, it wasn’t intended to be an anthem. After it was adopted by the civil rights movement, I felt very honored–and I’m still very honored and moved every time I hear it.”

The situation in Canada for African-Canadian performers in the 50s and 60s had many parallels with the situation south of the border. “There were certain closed doors, let’s put it that way,” Peterson says. “I was bothered particularly by the fact that I didn’t see many nonwhite performers on television and in commercials. I undertook to speak with Roy McMurtry, who is now Chief Justice of Ontario. He called the heads of various companies together, and we worked to resolve the problem.”

Downplaying his own role as a prominent performer, Peterson defers with typical modesty the suggestion that he was a key influence in helping resolve racial problems in Canada. “Oh, I wouldn’t take any bow for that alone,” he laughs. “I just did my best.”


In doing his best over several decades of music making, Oscar Peterson has also been largely responsible for the enduring appeal of jazz. He attributes the staying power of jazz as a musical language to one simple word: honesty. “I think when a musician plays jazz, you’re hearing the honest insides of that person. I’m not being critical of any other form of music, but some of today’s music is so patented and predetermined by people who are not really musicians.” Is there a definite difference, then, between the listening experience of a jazz concert and that of a rock concert? “By all means,” Peterson says. “Not to throw stones, but when listeners go to a jazz concert, they know they’re going to hear the musician, and what he or she is thinking and feeling at that particular time.”

Since his “discovery” in 1947 by Norman Granz, Oscar Peterson has amassed an incredible legacy of recorded work with Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Fred Astaire, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, and Charlie Parker, among countless other greats. His recordings have been lauded with awards for decades, as has his solo career. Past albums have earned him eight GRAMMYs, seven Hall of Fame Awards, and the Downbeat Award for Best Jazz Pianist 13 times–and this is barely scratching the surface. But it is with his trio–and, more lately, quartet–that he feels he has expressed his musical personality best.

“The jazz trio is my lifeline, and always has been,” he declares without hesitation, citing the satisfaction that comes from communication among members of a smaller group. “I think the smaller format works best for me, and probably also shows me in my best light. I enjoy solo piano, but I still prefer to work with a group because it’s exhilarating and challenging at the same time.”

Think of the word museum and the typical mental picture is a musty, dusty hall filled with relics of things long gone: dinosaurs, or King Tut. It therefore speaks volumes of Oscar Peterson that an entire museum exhibit was dedicated to his life and workwhile he is not only very much alive, but actively making music.

New Challenges

The technical wonders that comprised the Library of Canada exhibit reflect the fact that Peterson, while firmly part of jazz’s “old school,” nevertheless has a firm grasp on the value of technology–and he delights in the opportunities it presents him in his work. He recently introduced a CD-ROM containing a wealth of biographical information and photos, and his Web site,, illustrates his willingness to embrace the latest advances.

These same technologies aid him in his composition: he boasts a home studio filled with the latest synthesizers, sequencers, and computers. “All these tools represent a stupendous advantage over how people used to write,” he asserts. “For example, I’m not an orchestrator, but when I write something which will be for orchestra, I don’t have to wonder how a tune is going to hold up in the orchestra as opposed to a jazz quartet. Electronic keyboards can also help me figure out different voicings: I can hear exactly how a particular passage would sound when played by a muted trumpet or a saxophone, and I can hear the difference between the two.”

Technology ends where performance begins, however, and Peterson draws the line at the door of the recording studio. “I don’t mind editing so far as improving on the sound from a technological standpoint, but I think there’s definitely a point beyond which you should not go,” he states firmly. “This thing about making recordings in segments and putting them together? That I don’t buy. After all, you don’t get a chance to do that in a concert, you can’t take one part and say this is better than that part, and do it over 15 times. It’s a performance. A recording is also a performance, so I don’t think it’s fair to do that on recordings, either.”

Becoming a recent father, relatively late in life presented Peterson with very different challenges, but ones he feels have changed him for the better. “I’m a more concerned parent now than I may have been years ago; I’m also very much helped by the fact that my daughter is such a congenial young lady.” Not surprisingly, Celine, now 10, is discovering an interest in all types of music, studying flute and piano. Peterson handily anticipates the obvious question: “No, I haven’t influenced her. I try to stay out of the educational end of it, and be only a listener.”

The Gold Card

Peterson believes his daughter, like her father before her, should be allowed the freedom to discover her own path. Having said that, he also points out that good guidance is a valuable element in anyone’s life. Perhaps this is one of the reasons he has steadfastly remained a member of the AFM, when so many other big names in the business have let their union membership lapse.

“When I was just starting out back in the 40s, the Montreal union made it possible for me to earn a decent living. There were certain rules the union would not back down on, and the nightclubs had to adhere to them. Some nightclubs were actually trying to get away with not paying the musicians what they should have been paying, which was union scale.”

Peterson says he has always had the solid support of Montreal Local 406-119, and he is also a longtime member of Local 149 in Toronto. “The Montreal union was very good to me; as a matter of fact, they made me a lifetime memberyou know, giving me the “gold card!” And I’ve always respected that. The Federation is something musicians should use for their own protection, but also, almost selfishly, for their own benefit. We as performers should have a voice, because there are enough of us around, and we’re doing all the work!”


Supportand friendshipcame also in immeasurable strength from Norman Granz, who recently passed away, and who Peterson calls his greatest influence. “Norman not only guided my career in the jazz world, but was more importantly a very close friend. It was through him that I got the opportunity to work with some of the greatest names in music. He was a man with many facets, and he had great respect for any kind of talent.”

It was Granz, in fact, who took Peterson to his first Vladimir Horowitz concert. “Norman always took the jazz element very seriously, and wanted it to be on a par with classical music.”

At the suggestion that he has contributed to this elevation of jazz into a serious form of artistic expression, Peterson once again modestly deflects the lion’s share of the credit. “I have been very honored to receive the recognition of various classical societies,” he acknowledges. “It would have given my late teacher, Mr. Paul deMarky, great satisfaction. As for my part,” he laughs, “I’ve just tried my best.”

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