[JPL] Oscar Peterson, Virtuoso of Jazz, Dies at 82

r durfee rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
Mon Dec 24 21:14:01 EST 2007

December 24, 2007
Oscar Peterson, Virtuoso of Jazz, Dies at 82 
Oscar Peterson, whose dazzling piano playing made him
one of the most popular jazz artists in history, died
Sunday night at his home in Mississauga, Ontario,
outside Toronto. He was 82.

The cause was kidney failure, the Canadian
Broadcasting Corporation reported. Mr. Peterson had
performed publicly for a time even after a stroke he
suffered in 1993 had compromised movement in his left

Mr. Peterson was one of the greatest virtuosos in
jazz, with a technique that was always meticulous and
ornate and sometimes overwhelming. But rather than
expand the boundaries of jazz, he used his gifts in
the service of moderation and reliability and in
gratifying his devoted audiences, whether playing in a
trio or solo. His technical accomplishments were
always evident, almost transparently so. Even at his
peak, there was very little tension in his playing. 

One of the most prolific major stars in jazz history,
he amassed an enormous discography. From the 1950s
until his death, he released sometimes four or five
albums a year, toured Europe and Japan frequently, and
became a big draw at jazz festivals.

Norman Granz, his influential manager and producer,
helped Mr. Peterson realize that success, setting
loose a flow of records on his own Verve and Pablo
labels and establishing him as a favorite in the
touring “Jazz at the Philharmonic” concerts in the
1940s and ’50s.

Mr. Peterson won eight Grammy awards, as well as
almost every possible honor in the jazz world. He
played alongside giants of jazz like Louis Armstrong,
Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Roy Eldridge, Nat King
Cole, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald and
Duke Ellington. 

Ellington referred to him as “Maharajah of the
keyboard.” Count Basie said, “Oscar Peterson plays the
best ivory box I’ve ever heard." The pianist and
conductor Andre Previn called Mr. Peterson “the best”
there was among jazz pianists.

In a review of a performance in 1987, Stephen Holden,
writing in The New York Times, said, “Mr. Peterson’s
rock-solid sense of swing, grounded in Count Basie, is
balanced by a delicacy of tone and fleetness of touch
that make his extended runs seem to almost disappear
into the sky.” He added, “His amazing speed was
matched by an equally amazing sense of thematic

But many critics found Mr. Peterson more derivative
than original, especially early in his career. Some
even suggested that his fantastic technique lacked
coherence and was almost too much for some listeners
to comprehend. 

Billy Taylor, a fellow pianist and jazz historian,
said he thought that while Mr. Peterson was a
“remarkable musician,” his “phenomenal facility
sometimes gets in the way of people’s listening.” 

Whitney Balliett, the jazz critic of The New Yorker,
wrote in 1966 that Mr. Peterson’s playing “continues
to be a pudding made of the leavings of Art Tatum, Nat
Cole and Teddy Wilson.” 

The critical ambivalence was typified in 1973 by a
review of a Peterson performance by John S. Wilson of
The Times. Mr. Wilson wrote: “For the last 20 years,
Oscar Peterson has been one of the most dazzling
exponents of the flying fingers school of piano
playing. His performances have tended to be
beautifully executed displays of technique but
woefully weak on emotional projection.” 

The complaints evoked those heard in the 1940s about
the great concert violinist Jascha Heifetz, who was
occasionally accused of being so technically brilliant
that one could not find his or the composer’s heart
and soul in the music he played. 

Gene Lees, Mr. Peterson’s biographer, defended Mr.
Peterson as “a summational artist.” 

“So was Mozart. So was Bach,” Mr. Lees wrote in his
biography, “The Will to Swing (1990). “Bach and Mozart
were both dealing with known vocabularies and an
accepted body of aesthetic principles.” He noted that
just as Bach used material that he first heard in
Vivaldi. “Oscar uses a curious spinning figure that he
got from Dizzy Gillespie,” Mr. Lees wrote.

Oscar Emmanuel Peterson was born in the poor St.
Antoine district of Montreal on Aug. 15, 1925, one of
five children of Daniel Peterson, a West Indian
immigrant, and the former Olivia John, whom Daniel had
met in Montreal. Daniel Peterson worked as a sleeping
car porter on the Canadian Pacific Railway and had
taught himself how to play the organ before he landed
in Halifax in 1917. Mr. Peterson’s mother, who also
had roots in the Caribbean, encouraged Oscar to study

As a boy, Oscar began to learn the trumpet as well as
the piano. At age 7, he contracted tuberculosis and
was hospitalized for 13 months. Fearing the strain the
trumpet might have on his son’s lungs, Daniel Peterson
persuaded Oscar to concentrate on piano. He studied
first with Lou Hopper, then with Paul Alexander de
Marsky, a Hungarian who had also given lessons to
Oscar’s older sister, Daisy.

By his own account, Oscar believed he had become quite
accomplished by age 14. Then heard a recording by Art

“I gave up the piano for two solid months,” Mr.
Peterson later recalled, and had “crying fits at
night” because, he thought, that nobody else could
ever be as good as Tatum. 

The same year, however, he won an amateur competition
sponsored by the CBC, prompting him to drop out of
Montreal High School so that he could spend all his
time playing the piano. 

By 1942, Oscar Peterson was known in Canada as the
“Brown Bomber of Boogie-Woogie,” an allusion to the
nickname of the boxer Joe Louis and also to Mr.
Peterson’s physical stature — 6 foot 3 and 25o pounds.
Mr. Peterson became the only black member of the
Johnny Holmes Orchestra, which toured both Canada and
the United States. In parts of the United States, he
discovered that he, like other blacks, would not be
served in the same hotels and restaurants as the white
musicians. Many times they would bring food out to him
as he sat in the band’s bus, he recalled.

For a time, Mr. Peterson was so identified with
boogie-woogie, a popular dance music, that he was
denied wider recognition as a serious jazz musician.
In 1947, the jazz impresario Norman Granz was on his
way to Montreal’s airport in a taxi when he heard a
live broadcast of Peterson playing at a Montreal
lounge. He ordered the driver to turn the taxi around
and take him to the lounge. There he persuaded Mr.
Peterson to move away from boogie-woogie. 

Mr. Peterson eventually became a mainstay of the “Jazz
at the Philharmonic” series, which Mr. Granz created
in the 1940s. In 1949, Mr. Peterson made his debut at
Carnegie Hall and became a sensation. And a year
later, he won Down Beat magazine’s reader’s poll for
the first time; he would go on to win it 13 more
times, the last time in 1972.

Over the years, his albums sold well, and he sometimes
sang, recording numbers with Billy Holiday, Fred
Astaire, Benny Carter, Louis Armstrong, Ella
Fitzgerald, Roy Eldridge, Lester Young, Stan Getz,
Buddy DeFranco and many others.

Among his more notable long-playing recordings were
the Song Books of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Duke
Ellington, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Harry Warren,
Harold Arlen and Jimmy McHugh. 

Perhaps his most famous threesome — from 1953 to 1958
— was with the guitarist Herb Ellis and the bassist
Ray Brown.

In 1964, he recorded “The Canadiana Suite,” an
extended work written for his home country; later, he
wrote “African Suite” and then “A Royal Wedding
Suite,” for the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana
Spencer. Verve and Pablo released most of Mr.
Peterson’s work, but he also recorded for the MPS and
Telarc labels, among others. 

Mr. Peterson was frequently invited to perform for
heads of state, including Queen Elizabeth II and
President Richard M. Nixon. In 2005 he became the
first living person other than a reigning monarch to
obtain a commemorative stamp in Canada, where streets,
squares, concert halls and schools are named after

According to the CBC, Mr. Peterson was married four
times and had six children from his first and third
marriages: Lyn, Sharon, Gay, Oscar Jr., Norman and
Joel. He also had a daughter, Celine, with his fourth
wife, Kelly. 

Mr. Peterson continued playing after his stroke in
1993 because, as he told The Chicago Tribune, “I think
I have a closeness with the instrument that I’ve
treasured over the years.” Before long he was back on
tour and recording “Side By Side” with Itzhak Perlman,
having learned to do more playing with his right hand.
As he told Down Beat in 1997: “When I sit down to the
piano, I don’t want any scuffling. I want it to be a
love affair.”

Ben Ratliff contributed reporting.


Roy Durfee
P.O. Box 40219
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87196-0219
rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com

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