Oscar Peterson: Jazz Pianist
Oscar Peterson is, along with Glenn Gould, one of the most eminent of Canada’s musicians. In placing him next to Glenn Gould, a classical pianist of the highest calibre, is to state the level of proficiency and importance of Oscar’s work in elevating the status of jazz to the equal of the most noble of classical music and musicians.
Oscar Peterson is the most recorded jazz pianist of his time, with 200 plus albums and 10 Grammy Awards which range from 1974 through to his Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 1997. (p. 759, Thompson)
Oscar Peterson was born on the 15th August, 1925 in French-speaking Montreal. He was one five children in the family whose parents had emigrated independently from the Virgin Islands in the West Indies.
The family was extremely musical: four of the children learnt piano, and several leaned winds, including Oscar, who played the trombone and trumpet proficiently.
His mother came from an educated family: Two of Oscar’s uncles were chemists. Oscar’s father, an organist, was his first music teacher. He had taught himself to play on a portable, fold-up organ while he was a merchant seaman.
Oscars autobiography, and Gene Lees account emphasize the insistence of both his parents in maintaining rigorous practice schedules for the children, with the expectation that they would all become professional musicians. They all did: Oscar’s sister Daisy, who was an early influence on Oscar, was also a fine pianist and became a prominent music teacher in Montreal.
Oscar had perfect pitch and an incredible memory, which marked him out early for an exceptionally brilliant career. His parents arranged for Oscar and Daisy to have lessons from Paul de Marky, a Hungarian concert pianist who had been trained by a student of Liszt. De Marky later became a teacher at McGill University.
De Marky’s influence certainly flavoured Oscar’s style with a strong classical element, and a Romantically-derived feeling of expression and nuance not generally associated with jazz. De Marky’s input also contributed to Oscar’s develping an outstanding and brilliant technical skill.
Alongside the classical studies, Oscar was pursuing his real passion – the study of Jazz. Teddy Wilson’s boogie-woogie style impressed him in his early years, followed by Art Tatum who was perhaps his biggest pianistic influence in jazz.
Oscar mentions also Erroll Garner, George Shearing, the vocals of Nat King Cole, and the swing of Benny Goodman whom Oscar heard on radio, as important influences.
At age 14, Oscar won a nation-wide competition in 1939 which gave him a regulat 15 minute weekly spot on radio.
At about this time he was playing with Maynard Ferguson and Ferguson’s brother Percy in the Montreal High School Band.
In 1944, aged only 19, Oscar joined Johnny Holmes’ dance band. This was an all-white band except for Oscar, and it is interesting to read in his autobiography, and in Lees account, of the racism which was prevalent in Montreal at the time.
Holmes, however, was anti-tacist and refused to play at any venues which would discriminate against Oscar’s memebership of the band. The same year, Oscar made his first single. “I Got Rhythm:, with more recordings from 1945 to 1949. These are not indicative of the individual style which Oscar created later, and still feature the boogie-woogie style.
The Alberta Lound in Montreal was important as a venue for Oscar, and it was here that Ray Brown and Coleman Hawkins were to hear and meet Oscar. These two musicians are pivotal in Oscar Peteson’s career, and featured for many years in Oscar’s music and recordings. Norman Granz, another influential figure n Oscar’s career, bwho became his lifelong agent and friend, also heard Oscar at the Alberta Lounge after he had heard a broadcast of Oscar’s from Alberta. (Feather/Gitler, p.325)
It was Norman Granz who organized the spectacular debut performance of Ray Brown on bass, Buddy Rich on guitar, and Oscar Peterson on piano at Carnegie Hall in Sptember, 1950.
After this concert, Oscar toured with Ray Brown as a duo. This was an unusual jazz combination for the lack of percussion. Later, Irving Ashby’s guitar was added: Barney Kessel took Ashby’s place for a year, and herb Ellis finally became the third man of the trio which Feather/Gitler describe as being ‘the most celebrated trio in jazz history’. p.525)
Drummer Edmund Thigpen played with the trio from about 1958 after Ellis had left, and stayed with the group until 1965. Other eminent musicians who have played with the group are bassists Sam Jones and George Mraz, and drummers Louis Hayes and Bobby Durham.
Feather, Leaonard, and Gitler, Ira: Biographical Encycopaedia of Jazz. Oxford University Press, 1999,New York.
Lees, Gene: Oscar Peterson, The Will To Swing. Cooper Square Press, 1988 and 2000. New York.
Peterson, Oscar.: A Jazz Odyssey. Continuum Press, 2002. London and New York.
Thompson, Clifford: World Musicians. The H.W. Wilson Company, 1999. New York, Dublin.