Oscar Emmanuel Peterson will be honoured
posthumously next month at a prestigious annual gathering of the global jazz
community in Toronto.
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The inimitable technician and composer —
celebrated for a swinging approach that permeates more than 100 recordings —
succumbed to kidney failure and stroke complications at his Mississauga home
Sunday night. He was 82.
An unprecedented partnership between the National
Endowment for the Arts — the national arts funding agency in the U.S. — and
the Canada Council had arranged for Peterson to receive a $25,000 fellowship
along with other jazz masters (including Quincy Jones and Gunther Schuller)
during the International Association for Jazz Education conference being staged
at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre next month.
“He had confirmed he and (wife) Kelly would be
there with family members,” said association executive director Bill McFarlin,
who lauded Peterson’s “amazing virtuosity” and placed him on par with
“great innovators of jazz, like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong.”
The Jan. 11 tribute will go ahead as planned, with
Montreal pianist and former Peterson student Oliver Jones playing excerpts from
the late great’s 1964’s Canadiana Suite during the gala concert.
“I kind of puff up my chest when hear it,”
Jones said of Peterson’s best-known composition, which was inspired by various
regions of the country. “I can visualize different parts of Canada.”
The suite was indicative of the pride Peterson took
in his Canadian roots despite the international recognition he accrued. The
Montreal-born tunesmith, who battled arthritis and had been using a wheelchair
since a 1993 stroke, completed a U.S. tour in fall 2006 but spent much of this
year in poor health.
A late June performance at the TD Canada Trust
Toronto Jazz Festival was cancelled on doctors orders after more than 900
tickets had been sold, and he did not attend an all-star tribute in his honour
at Carnegie Hall earlier that month. Celine Peterson, 16, the youngest of
Peterson’s seven children, told the Star that her father died
“It’s hard to say. I’m very shocked. It
hasn’t hit me quite yet,” she said, when asked how she was coping with his
death. Standing in the doorway of the family home, the teen said her mother
Kelly, Peterson’s fourth wife, was “doing okay” and that the family would
have a private funeral and plan a “public memorial within the months to
Accolades continue to pour in for the eight-time
Grammy winner and Order of Canada recipient who played with greats such as Ella
Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and ranked with Glenn Gould as
one of our best known musicians.
“There’s only one word that does him justice:
legend,” said Toronto Mayor David Miller.
“Oscar was the most famous jazz musician in the
world and his passing further marks the end of a rapidly approaching era,”
said Toronto Jazz Festival executive producer Pat Taylor.
In official French reaction to his passing — even
before the Canadian government — President Nicolas Sarkozy said one of the
bright lights of jazz had been extinguished.
“He was a regular on the French stage, where the
public adored his luminous style,” Sarkozy said. “It is a great loss for
Peterson’s last recording was 2004’s live
album/DVD A Night in Vienna. His final public appearance is believed to
have been a May 6 fundraiser for Mount Sinai Hospital at Roy Thomson Hall where
headliner Diana Krall acknowledged the jazz giant to warm applause from the
B.C. native Krall was one of dozens of musicians,
across generations and genres, but particularly keyboardists, who cited
Peterson’s artistic example.
American pop/soul icon Stevie Wonder reportedly
made a low-key visit to Peterson’s home following his November concert in
“I consider him the major influence that formed
my roots in jazz piano playing,” said U.S. pianist Herbie Hancock in a
statement. “He mastered the balance between technique, hard blues grooving and
“He was the the Wayne Gretzky of the piano,”
said Toronto pianist/educator Mark Eisenman. “What he brought in musical
sense? An incredible sense of movement and time.”
Though Peterson was noted as a brilliant soloist,
Eisenman posited that some of his best playing was as an understated accompanist
to likes of singer Fitzgerald and trumpeter Roy Eldridge.
“He was a complete musician,” said pianist
Jones, who knew Peterson growing up in Montreal’s St. Henri district.
“Never has there been another piano player who
could swing so much, then be just as soft and tender. And his work ethic was of
the highest standard.”
Ottawa-born pianist D.D. Jackson also recalled
Peterson’s “impeccable sense of swing” as well as “the blues tinge he
brought to everything he did, combined with his flawless and elegant piano
To a musician with African and Chinese heritage
such as Jackson, that “such a figure was also African-Canadian was even more
Peterson was the fourth of five children of a
railway porter father who encouraged music as an option to the menial jobs
blacks were then relegated to. Peterson started off on trumpet at age 5 but
moved to piano after a bout of tuberculosis. Taught by older sister daisy, at 14
he won a national CBC music contest and became the star of a weekly local
broadcast, quitting school to pursue a career in music.
“He had the ability to play classical as well,”
said Jones, “but that arena was not very inviting back in those days for any
Peterson’s big break came when New York jazz
impresario Norman Granz visited Montreal and heard Peterson on the radio during
a taxi ride. He arranged for the 24-year-old to appear on a Jazz at the
Philharmonic concert at Carnegie Hall in 1949 and recorded his debut, Tenderly,
on Verve Records the following year.
As the Jazz at the Philharmonic house pianist,
Peterson toured with luminaries such as Fitzgerald and Gillespie. His most
popular format was the trio, the most definitive being his partnership with
guitarist Herb Ellis and bassist Ray Brown from 1953 to 1958.
Influenced by legendary musicians Nat King Cole and
Art Tatum (whose image is carved into the front door of his Mississauga home),
Peterson, whose style was somewhere between swing and bop, was a technically
dazzling player whose sound would be akin to raindrops — if they were made of
While some critics said the pianist, who also sang
occasionally, used too many notes in his music, others found his approach
Lauded as a fine interpreter of standards, Peterson
later established himself as a composer, penning 1981’s A Royal Wedding
Suite in honour of the Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer nuptials.
“There’s an extreme joy I get in playing that
I’ve never been able to explain,” he said in a 1996 interview. “I can only
transmit it through the playing; I can’t put it into words.”
But his days weren’t all bright.
Peterson never forgot his experiences with racism
— a patron who wouldn’t shake his hand in a Montreal nightclub, the Hamilton
barber who refused to cut his hair, segregated halls and hotels in the U.S.
south, criticism for employing white guitarist Herb Ellis — but was proactive,
writing “Hymn to Freedom,” which became a battle song of the U.S. civil
rights movement, campaigning to get non-white faces on Canadian TV in the
However, there were more heartbreaking setbacks.
Peterson, who had five children with first wife Lillian and one with second wife
Charlotte, was plagued by misgivings about the incessant travelling which
compromised his duties as a father.
“His contribution to jazz is huge, but he told me
the cost was his first family,” said broadcaster and Jazz FM.91 CEO Ross
Only in later years, with fourth wife Kelly Green,
a restaurant manager he met on a Florida tour stop in the ’80s, and their
daughter Celine, born when he was 66, did the entertainer finally enjoy a
Though he received dozens of awards and honorary
degrees, and saw a 50-cent stamp issued in his honour, the artist cited the
naming of Oscar Peterson Public School in Mississauga in 2005 as “the most
special event so far in my life.”
“I love children,” he said at the time. “You
couldn’t give me a better gift than being amongst the kids.”
Peterson always displayed a commitment to
In the 1960s, he co-founded the short-lived
Advanced School of Contemporary Music in Toronto. He also served as adjunct
professor of jazz studies and chancellor at York University in the ’80s and
early ’90s, respectively.
Personally, Peterson was a 6-foot-3 teddy bear of a
“He had a wonderful sense of humour,” said
Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion.
“I often had dinner with he and his wife at their
home, and we would just sit there and chat. You wouldn’t know he was so
famous, he was so down to earth, had a marvellous sense of humour. He teased you
a little bit. You never knew when he was serious or not. He always had a twinkle
in his eye.”
“He could be very humorous, firm and generous,”
said jazz guitarist Lorne Lofsky, who played in his quartet in the ’90s.
Sidelined for two years by the 1993 stroke,
Peterson credited his long-time bass player Dave Young for coaxing him back to
the piano. Since then, until his final convalescence, his desire to play and
write new music was undiminished.
In a 2003 interview with then Toronto Star
jazz critic Geoff Chapman, Peterson scoffed at any suggestion of retirement:
“When it doesn’t come out, I’ll shut the piano down. Playing is manna to
me. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t play. It’s not the playing but
the travelling that is wearing, so maybe in the future I’d have to adjust
that. If I could live my life all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing
musically. It’s been an education.”
With files from The Canadian Press, Bruce
DeMara and Josh Wingrove