Very few jazz musicians have achieved such great heights of success as this Canadian legend. The career of internationally renowned jazz pianist and composer Oscar Peterson spanned over sixty years. As a virtuoso performer with unmatchable dexterity, speed, and expressiveness, as well as a talent for creating evocative compositions, he distinguished himself as one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time.
He led the way in establishing a space for Canadian jazz legends such as Oliver Jones, Joe Sealy, Maynard Ferguson and Ed Bickert on the international music scene, and influenced musicians from all across the world while paving the way for contemporary Canadian artists such as Diana Krall. Global renown did not stop him from paying tribute to Canada through numerous compositions dedicated to his homeland, as well as committing his time to educational endeavours that nurtured the growth and development of young Canadian talents
Peterson was born in Montreal on August 15, 1925, the fourth of five children. His gift was discovered and nurtured early on by his father, a porter with Canadian Pacific Railways who had taught himself how to play piano while in the merchant marine.
Throughout high school, Peterson studied with Louis Hooper, Canadian veteran of the Harlem jazz scene, and the distinguished pianist Paul de Marky, who reinforced the importance of technique and confidence. During this time, he was inspired by artists such as Teddy Williams, Nat King Cole, James P. Johnson, and in particular Art Tatum. In fact, the first time he was exposed to one of his father’s Tatum records, the young Peterson was so impressed and intimidated by what he heard that he avoided the piano for over a month.
Peterson won a CBC national amateur contest, at only 14 years of age, after his sister Daisy, who became a noted piano teacher in Montreal, persuaded him to audition. He became a regular on the Montreal radio show Fifteen Minutes’ Piano Rambling and the CBC broadcast The Happy Gang.
Peterson’s big break came in 1949 when Norman Granz, producer of Jazz at the Philharmonic, was on his way to the Montreal airport in a taxi and heard Peterson and his trio on the radio performing live from the Alberta Lounge. He immediately asked the driver to take him there, thus sparking the beginning of a long-lasting relationship between the two men.
Granz offered Peterson an opportunity to play as a surprise guest at Carnegie Hall and he accepted, performing a brilliant set with bassist Ray Brown and motivating Granz to offer him a permanent position with Jazz at the Philharmonic.
Peterson toured the United States extensively with the company and eventually formed the Oscar Peterson Trio with Brown and guitarist Herb Ellis. They worked hard, motivating and inspiring each other unflaggingly. Despite the demands of touring and recording, fellow musicians constantly clamored to be a part of the trio, due to a desire to work with Peterson and be part of his vision and talent.
Peterson’s career involved continuous performing and recording. His discography of group and solo work amounts, incredibly, to over hundreds of records. He collaborated with such notable names as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Stan Getz and others. Although Peterson never recorded or performed with his idol Art Tatum, they did become friends.
In addition to being a brilliant pianist, Peterson was also a gifted composer. One of his first major works, Hymn to Freedom (1962) is a protest piece that became an anthem for the civil rights movement. His best known work, Canadiana Suite (1963), is self-described as “a musical portrait of the Canada I love”; Fields of Endless Day (1978) is a film score about the journey of black slaves who escaped to Canada through the Underground Railroad; City Lights (1977) composed for the Ballets Jazz de Montreal, is a waltz composed about the city of Toronto. Canadian filmmaker Norman MacLaren’s film Begone Dull Care was made to the music of Oscar Peterson.
Other compositions include African Suite (1979), A Royal Wedding Suite (1981), Easter Suite (1984) and The Trail of Dreams Suite (2000) for the Trans-Canada Trail. He has composed works for Bach 300, the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, the opening of the Skydome in Toronto and countless films and documentaries, including The Silent Partner, for which he won the Canadian Film Award for Best Original Score in 1978.
Throughout his career, Peterson was always involved in creating and supporting music education programs in one capacity or another. From co-creating and training at his short-lived, yet highly-esteemed Advanced School of Contemporary Music in Toronto in the early 1960s, to his role as Chancellor at York University three decades later, he remained adamant about supporting the development of young Canadians: “I’ve been fortunate to have a successful jazz career, and I believe it’s now my turn to use that experience to help direct students.”
Peterson received innumerable awards throughout his prolific career, including eight Grammys, two Junos, one Genie, one Gemini, nine Lifetime Achievement Awards from various organizations, eight Hall of Fame awards, thirteen consecutive Downbeat Awards, and is the recipient of 13 honourary degrees. He was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1972 and promoted to Companion in 1984. He received the Praemium Imperiale from the Japan Arts Association in 1999 (the arts equivalent of the Nobel Prize; the first Canadian and first jazz musician to receive this award) and the UNESCO International Music Prize in 2000. He was the first recipient of the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award. He had a stamp issued in his honour by Austria in 2003 and by Canada Post in 2005.
Peterson was forced to slow down momentarily in 1993 after suffering a stroke while performing at the Blue Note club in New York, which slightly weakened his left hand. In more recent years, arthritis caused him to perform less frequently, although his performances contained as much passion and verve as they did half a century ago. Indeed, he is not only inspiring as an exquisite pianist and gifted composer, but also as a human being with unparalleled fortitude.
On June 8, 2007, a tribute concert featuring jazz icons such as Hank Jones and Clark Terry was held for Peterson at Carnegie Hall, the same place where his prolific career began nearly 60 years before. Although ill health prevented him from attending, fellow jazz greats, young virtuosos, family and friends gathered together in his honour to celebrate the profound and prolific achievements of this beloved Canadian.
On December 23, 2007, Oscar Peterson passed away at his family home in Mississauga, Ontario.