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Artist Profiles

Oscar Peterson: Will To Perfection

By Published: August 13, 2006
"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)

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