Jazz legend, Oscar Peterson dead at age 82
Date: Sunday, December 30 @ 00:07:52 MST
Topic: Black Habits Articles


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 “peacefully.”

“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 come.”

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 us.”

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 audience.

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 Toronto.

“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 tenderness.”

“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 technique.”

To a musician with African and Chinese heritage such as Jackson, that “such a figure was also African-Canadian was even more inspiring.”

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 black musicians.”

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 crystal.

While some critics said the pianist, who also sang occasionally, used too many notes in his music, others found his approach impressive.

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 ’80s.

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 Porter.

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 fulfilling homelife.

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 education.

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 man.

“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







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