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Oscar Peterson: Will To Perfection

By Published: August 13, 2006

It would be untrue to say that I am completely satisfied with my life so far. No player still performing could or should ever claim that, for every performance has its shortcomings, its moments of self-discontent and unrest.

Oscar PetersonBorn in 1925 in Montréal, Canada, to immigrant parents of West Indian origin, it was clear from early on that pianist Oscar Peterson was a musical prodigy. A star attraction in his teens with Johnny Holmes' big band, by age 20 he'd made his first RCA recordings.

During the '50s he joined Norman Granz' Jazz at the Philharmonic. Whether accompanying Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Fred Astaire, Carmen McRae or Anita O'Day, or as a musical partner for the likes of Coleman Hawkins, Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge and Charlie Parker, his firm place at the summit of jazz pianists grew to be generally recognized as one shared only with Art Tatum. Peterson has made countless recordings. The survivor of two hip operations as well as a stroke in 1993, he continues to perform, compose, teach and enjoy a rich family life, which includes his wife and young teenage daughter. In 2002, his autobiography was published, A Jazz Odyssey: The Life of Oscar Peterson (Continuum). A true giant, here he is in some words of his own as well as those of fellow musicians.

Marian McPartland, acknowledged by many to be the doyenne of the jazz piano recalls her first encounter with Peterson. "I can't remember the exact date but it was probably around '47, McPartland explains. "My husband Jimmy and I went to play at a club in Toronto. Oscar was the headliner and Jimmy and I were there with our little band, a quartet I think. And that was actually my first meeting with Oscar. He and Ray Brown. I was very thrilled to be working with him but also a little shy about it. ...We became friends right away. I've got pictures of Oscar and I at the piano. I was nervy enough to ask him if someone could take a picture of the two of us at the piano. From then on anytime I ran into Oscar we would get together and hang out. He was also a great guest on my show [NPR's Piano Jazz] because he had a lot of stories.

Trumpeter Clark Terry's been a colleague and close friend of Peterson's for decades. "I feel like I have known him all my life, says Terry. "I can't even remember when we met. I just love him. His daughter Celine is my godchild. She looks like a little 'P'. We started working together for Norman Granz in Jazz at the Philharmonic. He's just the best that ever lived as far as I am concerned. He's a fantastic guy and his speed, his approach is absolutely fantastic. When he came on the scene I guess he was a fan like everyone else of Art Tatum, who was considered the greatest. He was inspired by him and he has surpassed him.

"As a person he's the greatest, continues Terry.. "He's beautiful to play with. There's a story I like to tell. Way back we were doing some recording session. It was one of one-on-one dates he did with trumpets. Roy Eldridge, Jon Faddis, Dizzy and several guys had all done theirs. I was getting pretty nervous as hell. My time came up. We were out in Los Angeles and going to record in the afternoon. I thought, you know what I am going to do; I'm going to the studio early to bone up before he comes in so I will be ready. So I got there about 8:30 in the morning and rang the bell. And guess who answered the bell. He just looked at me and said, 'Uh huh—I'm taking no prisoners today.'

Peterson's own remarks about Clark Terry are revealing about his approach to music: "People have not recognized the true genius of Clark Terry, Peterson says, "an enviably high level of performance, a staggering consistency. His sound on the horn is matchless. Add to all this melodically fruitful ideas and garnish with unique breathing and range and you have a fair recipe for instant genius.

Clarinet great Buddy DeFranco also first met Peterson through Norman Granz, in 1950 or 1951, as he recalls: "Norman Granz kind of put us together for a couple of years when I did Jazz at the Phil. Oscar had come down from Canada and made a fantastic splash. Oscar already had a tremendous name. I asked Norman who was my backup. He said Herb Ellis, Ray Brown, Oscar Peterson and either Buddy Rich or Louis Bellson. They were my Backup!

"Oscar and I really jelled and we got very close, continues DeFranco. "We thought alike about jazz as far as essential feeling, intensity and emotion. We recorded together several times. It was always great. When I think of pianists I think of Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson. I loved Art Tatum's playing but working with him could be difficult. It was his ball game. When I played with Oscar he had more sensitivity and he played for you.

"I saw Oscar last year in Europe, concludes DeFranco. "I think it was Copenhagen. We'd gone to hear his concert and met him after. It was delightful and we reminisced and talked about old times. He's got a great sense of humor and a pretty good knowledge about many things. He's always been great. It's the same thing when you think of Charlie Parker, Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson. He stands out the same as Bird and Tatum. Tremendous power, technique and dynamic. He could play tender and soft as well as very powerful. Oscar had the complete picture.

Peerless vocalist Helen Merrill recalls her contact with Peterson as limited to "long ago I did a few radio shows with him. I was a fan of his enormoustalent. ...He was a man who spoke his mind.

Peterson on cultural politics and the betrayal of jazz: "For most of my life as a working musician I have been forced to watch gloomily as Western society emasculated or simply ignored the culture and the unique phenomenon we call jazz. I am quite clear about one thing—the treatment of jazz is deeply indicative of society's values and also its fears and prejudices.

Clarinetist and alto saxophonist Hal McKusick speaks admiringly of Peterson's "choice of tunes, musicians and his unbelievable technique. Add to that his innovative approach inspired by his own needs as well as by Art Tatum and you have this gifted musician expressing himself in a strong and swinging yet sensitive way. He brought his own distinctive expression to jazz.

Guitar great Jim Hall first heard Peterson live at Lindsay's Sky Bar in Cleveland. "Oscar was there playing with Ray Brown and Irving Ashby, Hall explains. "It reminded me in a way of the King Cole Trio. Where I got to know Oscar was [pianist] John Lewis had a school of jazz up in Lenox, Massachusetts for several summers. Oscar was one of the instructors. I was a part of the rhythm section and we would demonstrate stuff. I put together a guitar book a few years ago and I talked about rhythm guitar playing. I said something like 'the combination of Herb Ellis and Ray Brown with Oscar was almost too intense to bear.'

"There was a chance of going to work for Oscar, Hall continues. "But I was working with Jim[my] Giuffre and I felt really good about it. I was really torn and I turned [it] down. [Chuckle] I probably made a mistake. What I remember about Oscar is he is a complete, classic gentleman. He speaks very articulately and he has a great sense of humor as well. I remember Herbie Ellis once told me that he and Oscar were asked to leave a movie theater because they were laughing so hard.

"He's an incredible pianist, just technically, continues Hall. "His playing gets really intense. If you want to get into swinging he's just ridiculous. He's really just a complete pianist in every sense. He can play gorgeous ballads. I have a record of him and Ben Webster playing "In the Wee Small Hours. Ben loved to play ballads. With all those beautiful breaths, Oscar just supplied the perfect cushion for him.

"About ten years ago, Hall concludes, "I noticed on the way into Tokyo from one of the airports there's an elevated highway. And I noticed on top of a building I could see a huge statue of Oscar! Imagine! I don't know for sure but I assume it's a piano company. In any case, there's Oscar, big as life for all to see!

Oscar Peterson Champion drummer Louis Hayes recalls first meeting Peterson when Hayes was appearing with Cannonball Adderley in the early '60s. "We played opposite each other on different occasions in several places in the world, says Hayes. "I played with Oscar twice. The first time was in '65 for two years and then maybe something like '70 or '71 for two years. I had a wonderful relationship personally. He's a person that makes sure the guys in the trio are taken care of onstage and offstage very well. ...He demands that everything in music is on the highest level, just the way he plays. And he demands respect also from the audience. I'm glad that I had that opportunity during that time of my life to travel with Oscar and Sam Jones and all of the other bass players in the group. I just feel Oscar is one of a kind. And I feel very honored to have shared the stage and recorded with him.

Peterson on being satisfied: "It would be untrue to say that I am completely satisfied with my life so far. No player still performing could or should ever claim that, for every performance has its shortcomings, its moments of self-discontent and unrest. All artists spend their creative lives trying to find out how high it is possible for them to climb before their time is over. The 'will to perfection,' as I have termed it, seems especially prevalent in jazz musicians. Creating an uninhibited, off-the-cuff musical composition in front of a large audience is a daredevil enterprise, one that draws on everything about you, not just your musical talent, [requiring] utter dedication every time you play.

Selected Discography

Oscar Peterson, Exclusively for My Friends (Polygram, 1995)

Oscar Peterson, Live at the Blue Note (Telarc, 1990)
Oscar Peterson, The Trio (Pablo, 1973)

Oscar Peterson, Night Train (Verve, 1962)

Oscar Peterson, At the Stratford Shakespearean Festival (Verve, 1956)

Oscar Peterson, Tenderly (Verve, 1950)

[Oscar Peterson quotation excerpts taken from A Jazz Odyssey: The Life of Oscar Peterson, edited by Richard Palmer, Continuum Publishing, 2002]

Photo Credits
Top Photo: Patti Gower/The Toronto Star
Bottom Photo: Edward Gajdel

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