Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

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PETERSON, Oscar

(b 15 August 1925, Montreal; d 23 December 2007, Missassauga, Ontario of kidney failure) Pianist; also composer. Began playing at age six; won talent contest at 14, soon played on radio; a popular Canadian artist recording for RCA there '45-9 (The Complete Young Oscar Peterson was a two-CD set on RCA; 1951 on the Canadian Justin Time label's Just a Memory subsidiary had CBC broadcasts). A serious, hard-working man, intent on doing a good job, he became one of the most popular jazz musicians in the world, initially influenced by Teddy Wilson, Erroll Garner, Nat Cole, George Shearing; he admitted admiration of Art Tatum and continued to grow as a musician influenced by Tatum, especially harmonically, but it is wrong to assume the direct influence of Tatum's style: Tatum and Peterson have common roots in classical music; Peterson's phenomenal technique was already apparent as a teenager and he has been described as the Liszt of jazz (Bill Evans cast as the Chopin). With jazz roots deep in the mainstream, he was also a masterful accompanist. (Recording with Billie Holiday '52-4, he said later, he was worried about being too busy, 'something I've always been charged with -- so at first I sort of held back, but she didn't want to hear that. She wanted everybody to just play.' Shirley Horn said, 'Oscar spread flowers beneath her.') He was not an innovator, except in the sense that he has brought immense formal skill to jazz, and orthodoxy has it that technical skill is supposed to be kept hidden: because he was among the most commercially successful in jazz since Dave Brubeck without advancing the frontier of the avant-garde, some critics and musicians took him for granted (though sooner or later most admitted admiration). Some even said that he didn't swing; in fact musicians who worked with him discovered that his powerful brand of swing dominates the proceedings.

Oscar always said his sister Daisy was just as talented; she became a piano teacher. He had U.S. offers and finally came to Carnegie Hall '49 with Norman Granz's JATP. His first NYC recordings were duets with Ray Brown or Major Holley on bass '50 on Verve; he led a trio '50s with Brown and Irving Ashby on guitar (b 29 December 1920, Somerville MA; d 22 April 1987, Perris CA) succeeded by Barney Kessel, then Herb Ellis; one of the finest albums is said to be At The Shakespearean Festival with Brown and Ellis, now on Verve CD with additional tracks. The drummerless trios are still regarded by some aficianados as among Peterson's finest work. Drums replaced guitar '58: Ed Thigpen (b 28 December 1930, Chicago; d 13 January 2010, Copenhagen. Thigpen grew up in Los Angeles and went to the same high school as Art Farmer, Dexter Gordon and Chico Hamilton. His father Ben had played with Andy Kirk for 16 years.) Thigpen was in turn replaced '65 by Louis Hayes (b 31 May 1937, Detroit; with Horace Silver late '50s); Brown left '66, replaced by Sam Jones. Peterson played solo recitals c.'72, but has made very few solo records; later sidemen included drummers Bobby Durham (d 6 July 2008, Genoa Italy of lung cancer, aged 71) and Ray Price, Joe Pass on guitar, George Mraz, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen on bass; he went to the USSR '74 with the latter and Jake Hanna on drums, but cut the tour short in disagreement with Soviet authorities. He also recorded with Louie Bellson on drums, had reunions with Ellis and Brown; also played the organ (clavichord '76 in duo with Pass on Porgy And Bess) and sang occasionally from '53, resumed singing after some years on LP With Respect To Nat '65 on Limelight. Drummer Martin Drew (b 11 February 1944, Northampton, England; d 29 July 2010, London) became a Peterson regular after they met at Ronnie Scott's club '74.

In the '50s and '60s Peterson recorded with Lester Young, Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Fred Astaire, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Carter, Roy Eldridge, Clark Terry, Stan Getz, Buddy DeFranco, Nelson Riddle, Milt Jackson and many more plus nearly 60 LPs of his own, mostly on Granz-associated labels Verve, Clef, Norgan and Mercury. He recorded in Villingen Germany for MPS/BASF late '60s-early '70s, using label boss Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer's Bösendorfer grand piano: six LPs were collected on a four-CD set Exclusively For My Friends, which is highly recommended, including trios with Brown or Jones on bass, Thigpen, Hayes or Durham on drums, and solo set My Favorite Instrument. Motions And Emotions compiles three more MPS LPs on two CDs; another MPS solo set Tracks was available on a single CD, all now on Verve.

He rejoined Granz on his Pablo label and made over 30 more albums. His few solo LPs included the two on MPS, Terry's Tune '74 (made in Tokyo), live tracks from USSR '74, At Salle Pleyel '75 on Pablo; these are so fine that fans always wished he would do more. Duet LPs include Two Of The Few '83 with Jackson; Digital At Montreux '79 with Ørsted Pedersen; with Gillespie in London, Eldridge and Harry Edison in L.A. '74. Swinging Brass '59 and Bursting Out '62 were big-band albums, combined on CD Bursting Out '96; Bursting Out, trio Affinity and Trio + One '64 (with Terry) made the Billboard pop album chart. Other highlights included Jazz Portrait Of Frank Sinatra, songbook LPs of Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Harry Warren and Vincent Youmans, Harold Arlen and Jimmy McHugh, all '59; his own Canadian Suite '64 (all these with Brown and Thigpen) and Royal Wedding Suite '81 (orchestra led by Russ Garcia); piano duets with Count Basie (and rhythm) Satch And Josh '74, Again '77; Oscar Peterson Jam '77 at Montreux with Gillespie, Terry, Lockjaw Davis, Durham, Ørsted Pedersen; The Silent Partner '79 (film music) with Carter, Terry, Jackson, Zoot Sims, John Heard on bass, drummer Grady Tate; many other combinations plus the many trio LPs. His recording schedule finally eased; he was seriously over- recorded by Granz, but no relationship between jazz musician and manager has ever lasted as long (as well as the personal friendship).

He began recording for Telarc, including three CDs with Brown and Ellis (Live At The Blue Note, Last Call At The Blue Note and Saturday Night At The Blue Note, all '90); he named the project as his favourite among his recordings: 'I'd settled a lot of scores with myself by then.' Encore added Durham on drums.

Miles Davis once commented, 'Nearly everything Peterson plays, he plays with the same degree of force. He leaves no holes for the rhythm section.' But this merely describes the difference between the two players; Davis did not have Peterson's powerful technique, and found a different kind of expression. Amazingly, Peterson had suffered from arthritis since his youth and in later years could hardly button his shirt, yet played as well as ever; he also had hip replacement surgery, then had a stroke early '93 and was half paralysed, but fought his way back and resumed recording, saying, 'I've learned something about patience.' The More I See You '95 was a triumph, with Benny Carter, Clark Terry, Ray Brown, Lorne Lofsky on guitar and Lewis Nash on drums; then Meets Roy Hargrove And Ralph Moore '96 was a solid quintet with a jam session feel. A Tribute To Oscar Peterson was a concert from autumn '96, reunions with many old friends and the master playing as well as ever.

In Peterson's book A Jazz Odyssey (2002), he wrote about what he learned from playing with giants, and about music itself. Here he is on violinist Stuff Smith: 'At times he seemed almost to accompany himself, playing linear lines which he'd then answer with pugnacious octaves, much like Duke Ellington's brass section. He was a man that walked in time, for it guided his every move, both human and musical.' That last sentence could have applied to Oscar himself.