Montreal-born pianist Oscar Peterson is considered the greatest jazz pianist this country has ever produced. His fame stretches well beyond our borders. As a teen, Peterson was influenced by Teddy Wilson, Nat King Cole and (chiefly) Art Tatum. Using unmatched technical prowess and melodic inventiveness, Peterson vaulted to international success while still in his twenties. With his blinding technique and his qualities as a composer, Peterson has a well deserved in the jazz pantheon.
Oscar Emmanuel Peterson was born on August 15, 1925 in the Montreal neighbourhood of Saint Henri. At the tender age of 5, he learned the rudiments of piano from his father and was then guided by his older sister Daisy, who later gave lessons to Oliver Jones.
Then, in high school, Peterson learned his scales and arpeggios under renowned pianist Paul de Marky. A tireless worker, Peterson won a national competition at 14 and promptly turned professional. In 1944, he was hired by Johnny Holmes, one of the top Canadian band leaders.
Peterson continued to hone his craft and watched as his reputation grew. His popularity throughout Canada was such that he gave no consideration to crossing the border at the time. Little did he know that his landmark performance in New York in the late 1940s was just a few years away.
New career heights
Fate intervened when the pianist crossed paths with the young American lawyer Norman Granz in 1949. The story of their first meeting is legendary: While in a taxi to the Montreal airport, Granz heard the pianist on live radio and ordered the cabbie to return to the city where the event was taking place. Under Peterson's spell, Granz offered himself as an agent and helped the musician to sign his first contract with the mythic Verve label.
This paved the way for appearances as part of the Jazz At The Philharmonic concert series, which allowed the best and brightest musicians to play in major venues throughout the country, as well as a dazzling performance at Carnegie Hall, where, in 1949, Peterson catapulted to jazz stardom. A year later, he won the Down Beat readers' poll for best pianist.From that point onward, thanks to an unmatched virtuosity that made him a worthy heir to Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson recorded numerous successes as part of J.A.T.P., which he accompanied until 1955, as well as with his first trio with Ray Brown on double bass and Irving Ashby on guitar. (Ashby would soon be replaced by Barney Kessel, who would in turn be succeeded by Herb Ellis.)
Over and above to these activities, Oscar Peterson went on to record numerous flamboyant swing albums on the Verve label; among these were recordings with Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge and Coleman Hawkins.
In 1959, drummer Ed Thigpen replaced guitarist Herb Ellis, a significant change that resulted in the release of the album Night Train, considered one of the greatest trio recordings of all time, together with Oscar Peterson Trio at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival, put out three years earlier.
In 1966, Ed Thigpen and Ray Brown were replaced, respectively, by Louis Hayes and Sam Jones, formerly of the Cannonball Adderley Quintet. The period that followed was the least productive of Peterson's career. In his defence, all jazz "suffered" with the rise to prominence of rock. Oscar Peterson came back in force in the 1970s, however, with a series of inspired albums.
An industrious composer, Peterson wrote pieces for trio, quartet and big band. His best known works are featured on the 1964 album Canadiana Suite, recorded with Thigpen and Brown.
The pianist also dedicated himself to teaching. In the 1960s, he teamed up with various associates to found the Advanced School of Contemporary Music in Toronto. The adventure lasted five years, after which Peterson again turned his attention to touring. Later, he would contribute to the jazz program at York University as a mentor. Among his students were Benny Green and... Oliver Jones.
Peterson and the Festival
Oscar Peterson stepped into the Festival limelight on numerous occasions, not only as a gifted musician but also as a charismatic host, when he fronted a TV show dedicated to the event for the Japanese channel NHK and CBC.
The Festival loved Oscar, and Oscar loved the Festival: To mark its tenth edition in 1989, he was presented with the very first Oscar Peterson Award. This annual honour has since been awarded to a musician who makes an exceptional contribution to the advancement of jazz.
Peterson first appeared at the Festival in 1983, with a performance at Théâtre St-Denis. The following year, he gave a gala concert at the Montreal Forum with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra-the marquis event at the Festival that year. Peterson had not performed at the Forum since 1955. Five years later, Peterson gave the closing concert at the 10th Festival, opting for a more intimate setting with his trio.
Oscar Peterson continued to record and tour until the early 1990s, when health problems forced him to slow down.
A few farewell performances at the Festival would follow: In 1995, he kicked off the event with a quartet completed by Danish double bassist Niels Henning Ørsted Pedersen, guitarist Lorne Lofsky and drummer Martin Drew, and in 2004, he and his friend Oliver Jones marked Festival history as part of a memorable double bill to close out the Festival.
A musician whose preternatural chops were rivalled by no one, he projected the kind of magnetism typically reserved for those who've attained an absolute mastery of their art. Oscar Peterson passed away on December 23, 2007, leaving behind a considerable body of work.
An Oscar Peterson memorial concert was held on January 12, 2008 at Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto. Among the artists who came to pay tribute were Gregory Charles, Herbie Hancock and Quincy Jones.
In the summer of 2008, the Festival de Jazz International de Montréal posthumously dedicated its 29th edition to Oscar Peterson.