Oscar Peterson: Virtuoso pianist who dominated jazz piano in the second half of the 20th century

Oscar Emmanuel Peterson, pianist: born Montreal, Quebec 15 August 1925; married first Lillie Fraser (deceased; two sons, three daughters; marriage dissolved), second 1958 Sandra King (marriage dissolved 1976), third 1977 Charlotte Huber (one daughter; marriage dissolved), fourth Kelly Green (one daughter); died Mississauga, Ontario 24 December 2007

Following Oscar Peterson on stage at a concert in 1967, Duke Ellington remarked: "When I was a small boy my music teacher was Mrs Clinkscales. The first thing she ever said to me was, 'Edward, always remember, whatever you do, don't sit down at the piano after Oscar Peterson'."

In 1953, Nat King Cole said to Peterson, "I'll make a deal with you, Oscar. You don't sing and I won't play the piano." Peterson had just recorded his first album of vocals, accompanying himself on the piano. His voice sounded remarkably like Cole's and his piano style had also evolved so that it sounded close to Cole's work with Cole's own trio. The two jazz musicians agreed, and Oscar Peterson gave up singing, while Nat King Cole recorded piano-less vocals backed by huge orchestras.

Earlier, in 1945, a 16-year-old John Williams, later to be Stan Getz's pianist, was on tour in Canada with the Mal Hallett band and was playing in Montreal. "All the talk in the crowd was of a brilliant local pianist," said Williams, "and as we played, suddenly, between numbers, the packed audience in the dance hall parted like the Red Sea and this huge guy came up towards the bandstand. With some insight, I vacated that piano bench quick and he sat down. He played, and we were stunned. I had never heard anyone play like that."

Peterson could overwhelm any style of jazz piano and he could swing harder than any other player. In fact, the best way to define the elusive quality of "swing" might be to use a Peterson performance as an illustration. He had a deep knowledge of jazz history and could play two-fisted stride, or complex and intricate bebop. His timing and imagination also made him one of the great ballad players. He had everything, with only an occasional penchant for rococo decoration to detract from his achievements.

Such a talent attracted every award going and among his seven Grammies was one in 1997 for Lifetime Achievement. "Oscar Peterson is head and shoulders above any pianist alive today," said another doyen of the instrument, Hank Jones, in the early 1990s. "Oscar is the apex. He is the crowning ruler of all the pianists in the jazz world. No question about it." The pianist Marian McPartland described him as "the finest technician that I have seen."

Outside of his friend Art Tatum, Peterson had the most prodigious piano technique in jazz. He made it sound so easy to play the complex note-perfect and lightning runs with which he turbo-charged the piano keyboard that a lot of people took him for granted. The less aware regarded him as facile and his formidable bustling runs as showing off. In fact, he was riding an inspiration that seldom flagged to explore some of the more complex harmonic depths of the instrument.

Beginning in 1950 when he won the Down Beat magazine poll as the year's leading pianist, Peterson topped every one of the major magazine polls, some of them many times over. But it was by no means all roses. Miles Davis was one of his critics. "Nearly everything he plays," said Davis, "he plays with the same degree of force. He leaves no holes for the rhythm section." Distinguished writers such as the musicologist Max Harrison and the New Yorker columnist Whitney Balliett thought Peterson's playing to be glib and superfical.

The most important and effective years of Peterson's career from 1949 until 1986 were spent working for the impresario Norman Granz. Granz carefully nurtured the Canadian's career. He was an imaginative record producer and had a stable of stars that had Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald at its root. Peterson was the pianist on more than 200 of the many hundreds of jazz albums that Granz supervised and recorded, and at the height of his career he was making half a dozen albums a year under his own name.

Despite a genius that allowed him to express a thought through his fingers as soon as it arrived in his brain, Peterson could play, and loved to play, straightforward down-home jazz. He was one of the best-ever blues pianists in jazz and also, despite the huge urgency of his solo skills, one of its cosmopolitan accompanists. Just as well, for he worked with most of the giants of jazz from Louis Armstrong to Charlie Parker, from Coleman Hawkins to Ella Fitzgerald, from Lester Young to Stan Getz. So universally was he acclaimed that all he had to do to receive a standing ovation from an audience was to walk on stage.

Oscar Peterson's father was a former boatswain on a sailing boat who came from the West Indies to work as a railway porter in Montreal. His mother, from the Virgin Islands, had arrived in the city as cook and housekeeper for an English family. It was there that they met and married, and where Oscar was born in 1925.

His father taught music to all his five children, and Oscar began to learn piano and trumpet when he was five. Two years later, severe tuberculosis ended his trumpeting and he concentrated on the piano. His elder sister Daisy helped with his tuition and three years later Oscar began taking lessons in classical piano. In an interesting link, he studied with Paul de Marky, a Hungarian pianist who had been a student in Budapest of Istvá* Tomá*, whose teacher was Franz Liszt.

Peterson recalled: "I guess I was about 10 or 11 when my Dad thought I was getting too pleased with myself. So he brought home a friend with some Art Tatum records." One of the records was Tatum's "Tiger Rag". Tatum's improvising was so complex and multi-layered that Peterson thought there was more than one pianist involved. "And when I found there wasn't, I was so discouraged that I didn't play for a month. When I heard him live? Same thing. Only worse. No one plays like Art Tatum."

Peterson was a high-school classmate of the trumpeter Maynard Ferguson, and the two of them played together in a band led by Ferguson's brother Percy. Then, when he was 14, Peterson won a local talent contest, and was given his own weekly 15-minute show on a Montreal radio station. With some reluctance his father allowed him to drop out of high school to concentrate on music. By 1947 he was working in the top Canadian band led by Johnny Holmes. Peterson formed his own trio in 1948 and recorded for several Canadian record companies.

Travelling to Montreal airport in a taxi in 1949, Norman Granz heard a live broadcast by Peterson from the Alberta Lounge on the car radio. He told the driver to turn around and head for the Alberta. Between sets he persuaded Peterson to come to New York and appear in a Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) concert he was about to present at Carnegie Hall on 18 September. The bill was to include Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Buddy Rich, Ray Brown and Ella Fitzgerald.

Granz found it impossible to get the pianist a US work permit in such a short time so decided that Peterson would appear as an apparently unpaid guest. At a prearranged point in the programme Granz announced that Peterson just happened to be in the audience and called him up on stage from his seat. Seldom have there been such momentous and public turning points in jazz.

In an explosion of talent, Peterson played three numbers accompanied by Ray Brown on bass. They unveiled to the world an amazing jazz player, fully fledged, who was to dominate jazz piano for the rest of the century. The recordings are encapsulated, along with three more of Peterson's performances at Carnegie Hall during the early Fifties, on an album on the Giant Steps label. Originally appearing on Granz's Clef label, the music is now out of copyright it seems unbelievable that such fresh sounding and advanced playing is more than five decades old, and can be issued by anybody on CD without cost.

After the concert recording, Granz first took Peterson into the studio for his Clef label in 1950. He enrolled the pianist into his JATP unit and it toured for two seasons with Peterson appearing with accompaniment solely from the bassist Ray Brown. But, on Granz's advice, Peterson added a guitarist for the third season. The pianist had other Granz stablemates in his trio, and formed musical and personal associations with people like Brown and the guitarists Barney Kessel and Herb Ells that were to last for most of their lives.

In one of the concerts recorded on 13 September 1952, Peterson plays a version of "Tenderly" which is not just a classic performance but also a potted summary of his abilities. It begins with a lush solo rubato statement of the theme, so designed to make a contrast with the break into tempo when the guitarist Kessel and bassist Brown come in to give support. The music then moves to a sparse, almost Count Basie-like swing which builds to a juggernaut of rhythm climax before subsiding again to the rubato theme. This is a superb demonstration of how to swing that has rarely been matched on record.

It was also in 1952 that Granz had the imaginative and highly successful idea of recording an album with Fred Astaire singing and Peterson accompanying him.

Each JATP tour usually began in the autumn and finished at Christmas. Granz spent the summers in the recording studios. His output and income was phenomenal, and he was soon to become the most powerful figure in the jazz field. He fought hard for the rights of his musicians and Peterson's career flowered under his protection. "When I came to the United States, I came at a very bad time if you're talking about career launching," said Peterson.

I came in when there had been a swarm of pianists headed for their peaks. Erroll Garner, Bud Powell, George Shearing. And it was pretty rough fighting my way through those names. And no matter what you played, you were compared with or against them the comparison bit is a human trait. There's always been that thing with pianists, of the gun-fighters coming to town, you know. You open up and you see six or eight pianists giving you the scan to find out what the weaknesses are or the improvements, as the case may be. There's a certain kind of personal challenge, keeping your edge going.

But on a lighter side Peterson was an impressive prankster, often in partnership with Ray Brown. On one occasion, as the trombonist Bill Harris was about to play a ballad solo on "But Beautiful" at a 1953 JATP concert, Brown had put a handful of small steel balls into the piano. These produced an impressive cacophony when Peterson tried to play and he had to reach over with one hand to try and pick the balls out of the instrument while accompanying Harris (badly) with the other. Harris, a giant of the trombone but a nervous player, was paradoxically a master joker. As he stepped back from the microphone he turned to Peterson and said, "One day. One day."

That day came on tour at the Rome opera house the following year. Peterson was due to sing a number with the trio. Harris had collected a tray full of glasses and empty bottles and put it on top of a ladder behind the back curtain of the stage. When Peterson began to sing "Tenderly", Harris waited for the title word, pushed the ladder over and ran. The subsequent crash was satisfyingly cataclysmic. The stage sloped and so the bottles and glasses rolled down towards the footlights. Granz was so enraged that no one dared to identify the culprit.

Granz drew all the giants of jazz that he personally enjoyed into the bounds of his empire. He sought out and recorded Art Tatum. Tatum, blind since early childhood, was a piano genius and until the day he died an astoundingly prodigious beer drinker. He and the more fastidious Peterson became close friends although Peterson remained perpetually intimidated by the older man's piano playing.

For many years Peterson confessed to being scared of playing in Tatum's presence. The ultimate Tatum follower, he also became the pianist who reached closest to Tatum's attainments. But Peterson was more direct. The rhythmic power of his playing and the use of block chords with the trio let him build up the impact of a big band.

He suffered a double blow when, in November 1956, learning that Tatum was dying, he flew to Los Angeles to be with him. Tatum died before he got there and when he did arrive Oscar was given a message telling him that his own father had also died that day.

He spoke often about Tatum, most eloquently on a British television special he recorded with Count Basie in 1975. It was part of a brief series that Peterson made for the BBC, which showed him to be an articulate presenter and raconteur.

Peterson's playing was less abstruse than Tatum's. Tatum tended to take away the listener's breath, but impressed rather than involved his audiences. He had originality and harmonic brilliance but rhythmically he didn't swing as Peterson could, and he was too involved with himself to be able to accompany other soloists. Peterson, even in his most complex work, was primarily accessible to his audiences, and he was able to accompany anyone well, be it Louis Armstrong or Dizzy Gillespie.

He also had gifts as a composer and in 1965 his "Canadiana Suite" was nominated by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences as one of the best jazz compositions of the year.

Between 1968 and 1971 Peterson made an extraordinary series of solo studio recordings for the German MPS label, later to be sued over the material by Norman Granz. Encouraged by the remarkable sound quality of the recording techniques, the pianist put down some of his most impressive work. In this period he found an affinity with another Granz player, the guitarist Joe Pass, and the two recorded and appeared in concerts together. In 1972 Peterson began to give solo recitals.

In the mid Seventies a new trio came into being with the Danish bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen and the English drummer Martin Drew.

Peterson returned to television in 1980 with the American series Oscar Peterson and Friends, to which he brought a wide range of musicians including Mary Lou Williams and Dizzy Gillespie. At the beginning of the decade Granz had recorded a number of duo albums pairing Peterson's piano and various trumpeters such as Clark Terry and Freddie Hubbard.

In 1984 Peterson joined the faculty of York University in Toronto, one of several Canadian universities that gave him an honorary doctorate. In 1991 he as made chancellor of the university.

Poor health and marital problems were the only blot on his success. Months before he suffered a serious stroke in 1993 he had had a hip replacement, and he continued to be afflicted by the arthritis he'd had since childhood. After the stroke he thought he would never play again. It took many months of therapy before he was able return to the concert platform. He resumed his recording career in January 1995. "I've learned something about patience," he said.

From that time his use of his left hand was severely limited and his recordings now tended to involve trumpet and saxophone players who could take some of the solo burden. In May 1995, with use of the left hand restored, he returned to Carnegie Hall once more. He toured Britain again, playing in London at the Barbican in 1996 and at the Albert Hall in 2005. Despite worsening arthritis that made it difficult for him to walk, he kept touring.

In 1984 Peterson was made a Companion of the Order of Canada, the country's highest civilian honour, and in 2005 he became the first living Canadian to be depicted on a postage stamp.

Steve Voce

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