Oscar Peterson: A Jazz Odyssey

Kyle Simpler BY

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...A Jazz Odyssey
Oscar Peterson
Richard Palmer (Editor)
Continuum Books
ISBN 0826458076

Anyone who has achieved a certain degree of fame has probably given some consideration to publishing an autobiography. In many cases, it’s usually best if these works never get beyond the thought process, simply because the books would hold little interest to anyone other than loyal fans. There are, however, exceptions; Oscar Peterson, the legendary jazz pianist, definitely qualifies as one of the exceptions.

Canadian-born Peterson began playing professionally in the 1940s and within a few years became a household name among music listeners. During his lengthy career, he has worked with an impressive assortment of performers Even now, in spite of having suffered a stroke, Peterson continues to be a major figure in contemporary music. With the publication of A Jazz Odyssey (along with its subsequent CD release) he offers a true slice-of-life presentation of the jazz world.

The term slice-of-life frequently evokes some sort of Norman Rockwell image. In its true sense, though, it indicates an accurate sampling of the environment in question—good, bad, and indifferent. Peterson has experienced it all during his lengthy career. Throughout the book, though, the reader easily sees that Peterson has a genuine enthusiasm not only for music, but life as well.

A Jazz Odyssey isn’t a typical autobiography. Peterson does present plenty of biographical information, but there’s much more involved here. He doesn’t simply focus on himself, but instead provides a look at the world he has encountered along his journey. He also takes time to expresses views on race relations, politics, and the state of jazz in a pop culture world. Throughout the book, Peterson also shares his wonderful sense of humor; many portions are truly hilarious. A Jazz Odyssey never fails to be entertaining.

One of the only weak aspects of A Jazz Odyssey is its poetry. Peterson includes several poems, most of which are about about musicians he admires. While they do express worthwhile sentiments, they read almost like limericks. Obviously, Peterson isn’t going to threaten T.S. Eliot’s place in literature classes. His true poetic sensibilities come into play when he’s behind the keyboard.

Peterson’s musical associations read like a who’s who of the jazz world: Ella Fitzgerald, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Ray Brown (the list goes on). He reflects on many of the musicians he has encountered throughout his career. Some show the grim reality of racism, others provide a view of inflated egos, but most give the reader a chance to experience the genuine pleasure of making music.

Peterson provides an entertaining look at the world through his eyes. He has experienced a great deal of pleasure and setbacks as well. Through it all, however, he has maintained a healthy perspective. He is obviously resilient, somewhat analogous to his description of jazz: “But I do not believe you can wholly demolish a creative culture. You may subdue it, you may even fragment it; but if time has proved it valid and durable, it will continue to rise again and again.”

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