He played with Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, with Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie. He played for the Queen, and wrote a suite for Prince Charles's wedding to Diana. Mostly, though, Oscar Peterson was known as an extraordinary virtuoso on the piano, capable of producing cascades of notes and rhythm on the keyboard that made him one of the signature jazz musicians of his generation.
Tributes poured in from around the world yesterday following the news that Peterson had died of kidney failure at his home in Toronto. He was 82.
Herbie Hancock, his only obvious successor as the world's greatest jazz pianist, said he "redefined swing for modern jazz pianists for the latter half of the 20th century. He mastered the balance between technique, hard blues grooving and tenderness. No one will ever be able to take his place."
Peterson was a rarity in many respects: a Canadian in a musical form dominated by Americans, and a jazz musician who made the transition to swing and blues from an early classical training. He remains the only Canadian ever to have a postage stamp printed with his likeness during his lifetime, and he remained true to his roots throughout his 60-year career, never more so than when he composed his celebrated Canadiana Suite in 1964.
"I've always thought of him as Canada's national treasure," his friend and fellow musician Oliver Jones said. "All of Canada mourns for him and his family."
Peterson first developed his remarkable skills as a boy, taking his cue from his father, Daniel, an amateur musician who worked as a railway porter in Montreal and saw music as a way out of poverty for his children.
Young Oscar fancied himself as a baseball player more than a musician, completing the practice schedules set by his father quickly so he could get back out to the ballpark. But he also developed a love for listening to jazz on the radio early in the morning, before the rest of his family had got up.
By the time he hit his teens, he was wowing local audiences in Montreal with his staggering technique, which he developed with the help of a Hungarian-born classical pianist Paul de Marky. Among Peterson's idols was Art Tatum, whose mastery of the keyboard so blew him away when he first heard him that he wanted to push his piano out of the window.
In his early 20s, he attracted the attention of Norman Granz, an American talent-spotter who brought him to New York's Carnegie Hall. He electrified the audience there with just a short appearance in an evening packed with many of the jazz greats of the era.
He never looked back. He formed the Oscar Peterson Trio with bassist Ray Brown, his playing partner at Carnegie Hall, and guitarist Herb Ellis, and launched a rich and prolific recording career that netted him eight Grammys, including a lifetime achievement award.
He played with Billie Holiday when she was hopped up on heroin one of his most uncomfortable experiences and became the go-to pianist for almost every great musician of the be-bop era. Duke Ellington called him the "Maharajah of the keyboard". Count Basie said he played "the best ivory box I ever heard".
Peterson talked about his "will to perfection" and, in his autobiography, encapsulated the peculiar thrill of instant composition that is jazz improvisation. "Creating an uninhibited, off-the-cuff musical composition in front of a large audience is a daredevil enterprise," he wrote. "It requires you to collect all your sense, emotions, physical strength and mental power, and focus them totally on to the performance utter dedication, every time you play. And if that is scary, it is also uniquely exciting: Once it's bitten you, you never get rid of it."
He slowed down only when he suffered a stroke in 1993 and lost some of the power of his left hand. Still, he kept performing and recording, using his right hand to compensate for what his left hand could no longer achieve.
But, as his fellow pianist Benny Green once noted: "Oscar can do more with one hand than many pianists can do with two."Reuse content