Born 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 huhI'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.