Since bursting onto the international music scene in the late 1940s, Oscar Peterson has become one of the most phenomenally successful of all jazz artists. The first Canadian-born jazz pianist to achieve worldwide fame, he is one of the most decorated of contemporary musicians, with seven Grammy awards, ten honorary doctorates, and dozens of prizes and medals. Enjoying perhaps the greatest popularity of any jazz musician of his generation, Peterson’s admirers among listeners, critics, and musicians are legion; attested Bob Doerschuk in Contemporary Keyboard, “The history of Oscar Peterson is a study in superlatives.” And when Patricia O’Haire of the New York Daily News bluntly called Peterson “the best the jazz piano has to offer,” she echoed the opinions of many of Peterson’s fans.
One of the most remarkable features of Peterson’s long career has been his ability to capture a huge audience without compromising his artistic integrity. Throughout his life he has remained dedicated to the high standards he set for himself as a youngster—and has never altered them to humor popular taste. Proof of this is found in his somewhat aloof stage persona, for as a performer he is far more concerned with his craft than with his audience; indeed, he once told Down Beat’s John McDonough, “My audience has nothing to do with anything I do when I’m on stage.” And though he may not cater to his public’s taste or mood, Peterson demands the utmost respect from his listeners and has been known to walk off a stage when he found an audience noisy or distracting.
Peterson has always displayed a reverence for jazz history in his piano style; as Josef Woodward wrote in Down Beat, “Few pianists have so adeptly combined technical prowess with tradition-reverent poetry.” Part of this tradition is the blues, never far distant while Peterson is performing. As he told Doerschuk, “A jazz phrase to me can’t be a jazz phrase without some type of blues feeling to it.”
Another of Peterson’s ties to tradition is the debt he owes earlier jazz pianists, especially Art Tatum. As a youngster Peterson heard Tatum on records; he was so much in awe of the pianist that, clearly intimidated, he gave up piano for an entire month. His first meeting with Tatum, in the early 1950s, was in fact a terrifying experience; as he told Len Lyons of Contemporary Keyboard, “I was totally frightened of this man and his
For the Record…
Born August 15, 1925, in Montreal, Quebec, Canada; son of Daniel (a sleeping-car porter) and Kathleen Olivia John Peterson; married Lillie Fraser, 1944 (divorced); married Sandra King, 1966 (divorced 1976); married Charlotte Huber, 1977 (divorced); married wife Kelly, c. 1991; children: (first marriage) Lyn, Sharon, Gay, Oscar Jr., Norman; (third marriage) Joel; (fourth marriage) Celine. Education: Studied with Hungarian classical pianist Paul de Marky, beginning c. 1939.
Began piano and trumpet study, c. 1930; won first prize in Montreal radio show competition, 1940; appeared regularly on radio station CKAC, Montreal, early 1940s; toured Canada with Johnny Holmes orchestra, 1942-47; formed first trio, 1947; toured U.S. and Europe with Jazz at the Philharmonic, early 1950s; formed trio, with guitarist Herb Ellis and bassist Ray Brown, 1953; Ellis replaced by drummer Ed Thigpen, 1958; helped establish Advanced School of Contemporary Music, Toronto, 1960; toured widely with own trios, early 1960s; performed as solo artist and toured with Ella Fitzgerald, early 1970s; produced television series Oscar Peterson Presents, 1974, and Oscar Peterson’s Piano Party, 1978; composed film score for The Silent Partner, 1978; continued to record and compose, experimented with synthesizers, and collected electronic instruments in home recording studio, Mississauga, Ontario, 1980s-early 1990s. Became chancellor of York University, 1991.
Selected awards: Seven Grammy awards; numerous citations for best jazz pianist from Contemporary Keyboard, Down Beat, and Playboy; awarded the Order of Canada, officer, 1972, companion, 1984; Genie film award for best film score, 1978, for The Silent Partner; officer of the Order of Arts and Letters, France, 1989.
Addresses: Office —Regal Recordings, Ltd., 2421 Hammond Rd., Mississauga, Ontario, Canada L5K 1T3.
tremendous talent. It’s like a lion; you’re scared to death, but it’s such a beautiful animal, you want to come up close and hear it roar.” The two pianists nonetheless became friends, and one can still hear Peterson’s link with his idol in his harmonic inventiveness and radiant virtuosity.
Peterson was born in Montreal in 1925 and was introduced to music by his father, a porter on the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Daniel Peterson, an amateur musician himself, insisted that each of his five children be exposed to music, and he started Oscar on both piano and trumpet at the age of five. However, after Oscar suffered a bout with tuberculosis at age seven, he concentrated on piano alone. A strict disciplinarian, Daniel Peterson would give each of his children assignments before he left for a trip on the railway; as Oscar told his biographer Gene Lees, “My dad would leave and he would give us each a task, pianistically. You had to know this, you had to know that.... There were no ifs, ands and buts. Have it together. It was that simple.”
No doubt Oscar derived much of his sense of responsibility and dedication to his art from his father. He began practicing continuously all day long; as he told Lees, “I practiced from nine a.m. to noon, took an hour off for lunch, practiced from one to six in the afternoon, then went to dinner, and went back to the piano about seven-thirty. I’d keep practicing until my mother would come in and drag me away from it so the family could get some sleep.” It was in these marathon sessions that Peterson cultivated his technique, a prerequisite to the service of his brilliant musical imagination.
At the age of 14, Peterson took up studies with Hungarian classical pianist Paul de Marky. Peterson fondly recalled the pianist as an open-minded teacher who, unlike many piano teachers of the time, encouraged his pupil’s interest in jazz; Peterson told Contemporary Keyboard’s Doerschuk, “He would have admiration for what I did at times, he would have disdain at other times, but at the end of every lesson I can vividly remember him saying, ‘All right. Now play me what you’re doing in your jazz things.’” Many years later, at the age of 85, de Marky commented to Lees on Peterson’s innate talents, saying, “If you have a natural talent for your fingers and harmony, they can’t go wrong if they wanted to.”
At about the time that he began studies with de Marky, Peterson won first prize on the Ken Soble amateur radio show, which led to a weekly broadcast on CKAC in Montreal. He also performed in Canada on nationally broadcast programs such as The Happy Gang and The Light Up and Listen Hour. Then, in 1942, he joined the Johnny Holmes Orchestra, one of Canada’s most popular jazz ensembles. As Holmes recalled to Lees, “The amazing thing is that when he came into our band at seventeen, he had a technique I think every bit equivalent to what he has now. But he was a diamond in the rough.” Peterson used his time in the band to refine his talents.
In 1947 Peterson formed his first trio, with bassist Ozzie Roberts and drummer Clarence Jones, and brought the group to Montreal’s Alberta Lounge. It was here that Peterson first met record producer and concert promoter Norman Granz, who was to have a major impact on his career. In 1944 Granz had begun mounting all-star jazz concerts at Philharmonic Hall in Los Angeles. These concerts—as well as the ensembles showcased by them—became known as “Jazz at the Philharmonic” (J.A.T.P.). Eventually the Jazz at the Philharmonic enterprise began to feature national touring groups, as well as recordings. While in Montreal with one of these J.A.T.P. touring groups, Granz heard Peterson perform and invited him to play in a concert at Carnegie Hall. The pianist’s appearance there in 1949 set the stage for an international career.
During the early 1950s Peterson toured regularly with Jazz at the Philharmonic, traveling to 41 cities in North America, as well as Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, and the Philippines. In 1953 Peterson formed what was to become his most famous trio, with Herb Ellis on guitar and Ray Brown on double bass. The group, which performed and recorded together for five years, was a perfect blending of musical personalities, with the artists remarkably attuned to each other and to the effect of the performance as a whole. Peterson biographer Richard Palmer called the ensemble “the finest piano-bass-guitar group ever” and wrote in 1984 that “the drive, sonority, and almost spooky level of communication are as phenomenal now as when the group was playing and recording... it was a group based on love; and that still comes across irresistibly from the records twenty-five years on.”
Eventually weary of touring, Ellis left the trio in 1958; he was replaced by drummer Ed Thigpen, who remained with the ensemble until 1965. Peterson had settled in Toronto in 1958, and in 1960, along with Brown, Thigpen, trombonist Butch Watanabe, and composer Phil Nimmons, founded that city’s Advanced School of Contemporary Music. In addition to offering classes in improvisation, Peterson and his colleagues tried to instill in students a sense of tradition; Peterson explained to Doerschuk, “We found that the awareness among youngsters of what had preceded them in jazz was lacking. In those days people were saying ‘Who?’ about Miles Davis, believe it or not! So we would go through some of their recordings and say, ‘This is what this man did. This is what he meant to the music.’” But Peterson and his fellow educators ultimately found the school demanded too much of their time and abandoned it after three years.
Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s Peterson toured the world, usually with a trio. Beginning in the mid-1970s he also performed with symphony orchestras and in duo settings with such jazz giants as trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Clark Terry and guitarist Joe Pass. After about 1972 he began to appear with increasing frequency as a concert soloist, becoming one of the most highly praised of all jazz performers in that demanding setting. Peterson also worked in television, producing his own series in 1974 and 1978, and recorded extensively throughout the 1970s and 1980s, sometimes producing as many as five or six albums a year.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s Peterson curbed his exhausting touring schedule somewhat and focused more on composing. He also developed an interest in electronic instruments. At his home in Mississauga, Canada, he built a large collection of equipment for use as both a mechanical aid in creating film scores and as a way to find a new perspective on some of his musical ideas. As he told Contemporary Keyboard’s Greg Armbruster, “There are an awful lot of things that are within me that I haven’t thought of. I find they tend to come out more when I hear them on an instrument other than the piano; I tend to think a little differently.”
Peterson has weathered his share of criticism during his long career. As John McDonough revealed in Down Beat, there are those who see his phenomenal virtuosity as “an engineering sleight of hand whipped up to conceal something that’s not really there—emotion, substance, content, or whatever jazz is supposed to have.” Yet even Peterson’s critics admit that the standards of excellence he set as a young man have never been compromised, and certainly, his dedication to his chosen art form has never been questioned.
Hymn to Freedom, 1962.
Canadiana Suite, 1964.
Jazz Exercises and Pieces, 1965.
Oscar Peterson New Piano Solos, 1965.
The Silent Partner (film score), 1978.
Easter Suite, 1984.
Big North (film score).
Fields of Endless Day.
(With Norman McLaren) City Lights.
Begone Dull Care.
A Royal Wedding Suite.
I Got Rhythm, RCA, 1947-49.
Keyboard, Verve, 1950-51.
In Concert, Verve, 1950-55.
Oscar Peterson Quartet, Metronome, 1951.
(Contributor) The Genius of Lester Young, Verve, 1952.
At the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Verve, 1956, reissued, 1992.
At the Concertgebauw, Verve, 1958.
On the Town, Verve, 1958.
The Duke Ellington Songbook, Verve, 1959.
Ben Webster Meets Oscar Peterson, Verve, 1959.
Affinity, Verve, 1962.
Night Train, Verve, 1962.
Canadiana Suite, Mercury, 1964.
Live in Tokyo, Pablo, 1964.
The Oscar Peterson Trio Plus One: Clark Terry, Mercury, 1964.
In Russia, Pablo, 1964.
With Respect to Nat, Limelight, 1965.
The Way I Really Play, MPS/Polydor, 1967.
My Favorite Instrument, MPS/Polydor, 1969.
Tracks, MPS, 1970.
The History of an Artist Volumes I and II, Pablo, 1973-74.
Peterson and Dizzy Gillespie, Pablo, 1974.
Oscar Peterson and Roy Eldridge, Pablo, 1974.
Montreux 1975: Big Six, Pablo, 1975.
A Salle Pleyel, Pablo, 1975.
Night Child, Pablo, 1979.
(With Milt Jackson) Ain’t But a Few of Us Left, Pablo, 1981.
(With Freddie Hubbard) Face to Face, Pablo, 1982.
Oscar Peterson Live!, Pablo, 1986.
Time After Time, Pablo, 1986.
If You Could See Me Now, Pablo, 1987.
(With Herb Ellis and Ray Brown) Saturday Night at the Blue Note, Telarc Jazz, reissued, 1990.
The Will to Swing, Verve, 1991.
(With Ellis and Brown) Last Call at the Blue Note, Telarc Jazz, reissued, 1992.
(With Ellis and Brown) Live at the Blue Note, Telarc Jazz, reissued, 1992.
Exclusively for My Friends, Verve, reissued, 1992.
Essential, Polygram, 1992.
Three Originals, Verve, 1993.
Plays Count Basie, Verve, 1993.
Encore at the Blue Note, TelArc, 1993.
Jazz ’Round Midnight, Verve.
With Jazz at the Philharmonic
Norman Granz Jam Session, Verve, 1952.
One O’Clock Jump, Verve, 1953.
J.A.T.P. Live at the Nichegei Theatre, Pablo, 1953.
Blues in Chicago, 1955, Verve, 1955.
The Exciting Battle, Pablo, 1955.
Return to Happiness, Tokyo, 1983, Pablo, 1983.
Lees, Gene, Oscar Peterson: The Will to Swing, Prima, 1990.
Palmer, Richard, Oscar Peterson, Spellmount, 1984.
Contemporary Keyboard, March 1978; September 1978; December 1980; October 1983.
Down Beat, January 1991; December 1991; March 1993.
Experience Trillium, 1992.
Hot House, March 1990.
Jazz Journal International, July 1991; February 1992.
Jazz Times, May 1992.
Los Angeles Times, March 12, 1988.
Maclean’s, November 2, 1992.
New York Daily News, March 6, 1990.
Sarasota Herald-Tribune (FL), November 29, 1989.
"Peterson, Oscar." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/peterson-oscar
"Peterson, Oscar." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved April 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/peterson-oscar
One of the most admired, though sometimes controversial, pianists in jazz, Oscar Peterson (born 1925) in the post-war era claimed the same sort of status as earlier greats such as James P. Anderson, Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Fats Waller, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, and Bill Evans. Possibly the most successful artist produced by Canada, he has appeared on well over 200 albums spanning six decades and has won numerous awards, including eight Grammys. During his career he has performed and recorded with, among others, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, and Charlie Parker.
Peterson came of age during the bebop and swing years of the 1940s. A brute force on the piano, Peterson, similar to his idol Art Tatum, seems to play without strain and with a great command of his instrument. "Oscar told me," said younger pianist Billy Green to Don Heckman of the Los Angeles Times, "that the first thing he does when he sits down at the piano is to gauge the key drop—how far the keys on an individual instrument need to be depressed before the hammer hits the strings. He says— and he makes it sound so simple—that once he scopes that out, then he's in complete control of the piano. For the rest of us, of course, there are a lot more steps involved."
However, Peterson's abilities proved both a blessing and a curse. His tendency to play at high speeds and overuse of harmonic complexities have led critics to call his technique too overwhelming at times. Furthermore, according to music historians, Peterson's playing sometimes drowned out expression, leaving the intended musical statement uncommunicated. But perhaps, as many loyalists claim, Peterson just may be too good. And his durability and accomplishments have certainly validated his importance in the history of jazz.
Born with Talent
Oscar Peterson was born on August 15, 1925, in the Canadian city of Montreal, acquiring the musical confidence he exhibits today at an early age. Born with a naturally perfect pitch, he learned to play classical piano from his older sister Daisy, who also taught piano to Montreal pianist Oliver Jones. However, Peterson credits his father with first instilling in him the importance of music. Daniel Peterson, a West-Indian born Canadian Pacific Railroad porter and amateur musician himself, insisted that each of his five children develop musical skills. In particular, he wanted them to be exposed to music outside the values of the family, unlike the hymns that Peterson's mother (Kathleen Olivia John), a cook and a housekeeper, sang at home.
In 1930, at the age of five, Peterson began on the trumpet and piano, concentrating on the piano alone by seven years of age after a bout with tuberculosis. Although his father was a strict disciplinarian and expected perfection from his children, Peterson says that he remained always his biggest supporter. "He told me, 'If you're going to go out there and be a piano player, don't just be another one be the best.' He always had the belief in me, for which I'm grateful," as quoted by Maclean's contributor Nicholas Jennings. Deriving a sense of dedication from his father, Peterson thus practiced from morning until night, taking breaks only for lunch and dinner.
Later, at the age of 14, Peterson studied with Paul de Marky, a renowned Hungarian-born classical pianist. He discovered through de Markey, who, according to Peterson, could mimic Art Tatum exactly, an interest in jazz. Another teacher, Lou Hooper, led Peterson to recognize the importance of the classics, teaching his students to communicate in phrases such as "I have always felt Chopin was looking at a lovely landscape at the time he composed this piece because everything about it is so lush and green-like," recalled Peterson, as quoted by Gene Santoro for the New York Times.
Began Professional Career
Also at the age of 14, Peterson's determination as a child resulted in his winning a Canadian Broadcasting Company radio show competition, and before long he was making regular appearances. Then, in 1942, he accepted an invitation to join the Johnny Holmes Orchestra, a popular Canadian jazz ensemble. Afterwards, in the mid-1940s, he formed his first jazz trio and landed a recording contract with the RCA Victor Canada label. By now, he was already known for his masterful, fluid playing technique. Those that visited the Alberta Lounge in Montreal to witness Peterson and his trio perform included Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, and other now-legendary figures in jazz.
On one particular night at the club in 1949, American jazz impresario Norman Granz was so impressed with Peterson that he asked the pianist to come to New York City with him as a surprise guest for his Jazz at the Philharmonic (J.A.T.P.) events at Carnegie Hall. At the performance, Peterson shared the stage with the likes of Charlie Parker, Lester Young, and Coleman Hawkins, setting the young musician's international career in motion. Thereafter, he spent much of the early-1950s touring with Philharmonic ensemble, traveling to 41 cities in North America in addition to appearing in Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, and the Philippines. Meanwhile, Granz became one of Peterson's closest friends and manager. His record companies recorded a number of Peterson's recordings, usually teaming the pianist with established artists like Fitzgerald.
The Classic Peterson
For most fans, the classic Oscar Peterson remains his trio organized in 1953, featuring bassist Ray Brown and guitarist Herb Ellis. Although drummerless, Peterson's percussive style left little room for one anyway. The trio's recordings together include 1955's At Zardis, 1956's At the Stratford Shakespearean Festival, and 1957's At Concertgebouw. His next trio, in place by the late-1950s, included Brown and drummer Ed Thigpen, who remained with Peterson until 1965.
When Thigpen replaced Ellis, the group shifted from one in which any instrument could provide melody and harmony to the more standard piano, bass, and drums format. From here forward, Peterson would most often record in a standard trio setting. Some departures include Oscar Peterson Trio + 1, with flugelhornist Clark Terry, and the solo outing Tracks, both recorded in 1971.
Beginning in the early 1970s, Peterson embarked on a prolific touring and recording career, mostly for the Pablo Records label. Returning briefly to the drummerless trio, he recorded in 1973 Tracks and The Good Life, both featuring bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen and guitarist Joe Pass. He also recorded in a number of other settings, from duets with Dizzy Gillespie and Terry to symphony orchestra appearances. Meanwhile, Peterson was growing increasingly popular for his solo concerts, and he was recording during the 1970s and 1980s up to six albums per year.
During the 1990s, Peterson spent less time touring and recording in order to focus more on composing. However, in 1990, he reunited with Brown, Ellis, and drummer Martin Drew for an engagement at New York's Blue Note, which yielded four releases. In these performances, critics praised Peterson's emotional depth and softer playing style.
In 1993, Peterson suffered a stroke that diminished his ability to use his left hand. However, Peterson resolved not to give up performing and recording, initially spending hours in therapy to regain flexibility and control. And, as is often associated with strokes, he had to deal with the psychological trauma. "I still can't do some of the things I used to be able to do with my left hand," he said to Don Heckman for the Los Angeles Times. "But I've learned to do more things with my right hand. And I've also moved in a direction that has always been important to me, toward concentrating on sound, toward making sure that each note counts."
In addition to his output on record, Peterson had been the subject of a 1995 video titled Oscar Peterson: Music in the Key of Oscar, featuring footage of various concerts, and a 1996 documentary called Oscar Peterson: The Life of a Legend. In 2002, the book A Jazz Odyssey: The Life of Oscar Peterson, written by the pianist in collaboration with literary scholar and jazz journalist Richard Palmer, was issued. Two years earlier, in July of 2000, Peterson was the subject of an exhibition at the National Library of Canada called "Oscar Peterson: A Jazz Sensation."
Positions held by Peterson, who has 12 honorary degrees, include chancellor at York University, from 1991 until 1994. He also founded the Advanced School of Contemporary Music in Toronto. Peterson lives outside the city with his fourth wife, Celine, and continues his career as a concert pianist, though he knows he will one day make a final performance. "When that happens, there's going to be no fanfare," he told Jennings. "I'm just going to get up from the piano, take my bows, thank my group, and say, 'This is it.' Then I'll close the piano and that will be the last time I play publicly."
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Complete Marquis Who's Who, Marquis Who's Who, 2001.
Contemporary Musicians, Volume 11, Gale Research, 1994.
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Booklist, February 15, 1999; July 2002.
Boston Globe, March 12, 1987.
Commentary, October 2002
Chicago Tribune, August 7, 1994; June 6, 1999; June 14, 1999;September 30, 2002.
Down Beat, March 1993; August 1993; December 1994; August 1995; September 1995; October 1995; July 1996; February 1997; May 1997; September 1997; January 1998; February 1998; March 1998; September 1998; July 1999; September 1999; February 2000; March 2001; February 2002.
Guitar Player, February 1996.
Jet, July 17, 1995.
Library Journal, July 2002.
Los Angeles Times, November 16, 1986; January 6, 1995; June 18, 1995; April 15, 1997; February 27, 1998; August 6, 1998; August 21, 1998; March 21, 1999; August 24, 2001; November 24, 2002.
Maclean's, November 2, 1992; December 28, 1992; June 16, 1997; September 13, 1999; July 24, 2000; September 4, 2000; September 2, 2002.
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People, June 23, 1997.
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Washington Post, November 1, 2001. □
"Oscar Peterson." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/oscar-peterson
"Oscar Peterson." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved April 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/oscar-peterson
Peterson, Oscar (Emmanuel)
"Peterson, Oscar (Emmanuel)." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 25, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/peterson-oscar-emmanuel
"Peterson, Oscar (Emmanuel)." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music. . Retrieved April 25, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/peterson-oscar-emmanuel