A jazz player is an instant composer, you have to think
about it, it's an intellectual form
— Oscar Peterson
How appropriate that pianist Oscar Peterson made that statement long ago to the Canadian press. In the same
interview, he humbly conceded that jazz is certainly not the most popular genre
of music. However, Peterson was arguably one of the finest
improvisers — instant composers — in the genre of jazz. Peterson's
tremendous talent places him in the top half-dozen or so jazz instrumentalists
who ever lived. Peterson's solos on the piano have often been compared with the
vocal stylizations of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.
Until the end of his life, Peterson had the power to pack venues large and
small wherever he went. The sheer number of people who attended his concerts
from his first in Canada at age 15, to his Carnegie Hall debut in 1949, until
the end of his life is unmatched. Despite several health setbacks later in life
he sustained a very, very busy touring schedule.
No pianist, not even Peterson's mentor Art Tatum, had the incredible knack
for breathtakingly quick technique, paired with a musical mind so quick each and
every solo came out perfect. His extensive experience playing in small-combo
formats exploited his incredible ability to fit a hundred notes where most
musicians would've used ten. Where, for instance, a Basie would
follow the chord progressions of a song in a minimalist style, George Shearing
would render magnificent chords and carefully-charted block styles, Peterson was
the master of the jazz solo. Peterson composed great music, performed with
nearly all of the jazz luminaries, but while his peers continued to innovate and
change styles, Peterson was happy with the fleet-fingered, imaginative and
approachable sound (somewhere in-between swing and bop) that he'd developed
by the 1950s.
Peterson's fame was abetted by producer Norman Granz,
whom some critics say over-recorded the pianist's work. Granz's Verve label and
others produced no fewer than a hundred recordings. Later in life, Peterson
moved on to the prestigious Telarc label, for whom he cut sixteen albums. Of
this massive volume of recorded music, most are exciting works, a few are
masterpieces; known inside-out to jazz newcomers and old-timers as well. The
records that come off sounding pedestrian do so merely because of the shadow of
greatness cast on them by all the rest.
A Musical Household
Oscar Emmanuel Peterson was born on August 15, 1925 in Montreal, Quebec.
His father was a porter on the Canadian railway, his mother a homemaker who also
cleaned houses to bolster the family's income. Peterson had four siblings.
His father played piano, and his mother enjoyed music; he grew up in a
musical household. His first instrument was the trumpet, handed him at age five.
He changed to the piano after being ill with tuberculosis at the age of 7. His
father had hoped that he would become a great classical pianist. Peterson's true
love was jazz. He began playing on Canadian radio in his teens, where he earned
a reputation for technical excellence and melodic innovation.
One of Peterson's earliest influences was piano great Art Tatum. His father
played a Tatum recording to a young Peterson who was so incredibly overwhelmed
he didn't touch the piano for a month. Later in life, Peterson recommended a
recording of The Nat King Cole Trio as a "musical thesaurus" for any young jazz
Even in his early years, his regular appearances on the Canadian Broadcasting
Company brought him to the attention of jazz greats, with whom he'd play when
they were in Montreal. Some of these individuals included Ella Fitzgerald, Nat
King Cole, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Roy
Eldridge, Stan Getz and Charlie Parker. Peterson's star had begun to shine at an
He married Lilly Fraser in 1944, and married three more times. He had six children with his first and third wives. He had daughter Celine with his fourth wife, Kelly
Granz got him in with the Jazz At The Philharmonic series in 1949, appearing
at Carnegie Hall as an un-billed special performer because he had no U.S. union
card. He toured all over the United States to rave reviews after that. Soon
thereafter he began to attend major jazz festivals worldwide.
He began playing regularly in small combo format with greats like Ray
Brown, Herb Ellis, Ed Thigpen, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, Louis
Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Clark Terry, and Joe Pass.
No story of Peterson would be complete without mention that despite earning every existant jazz music award, the critics weren't always kind to Peterson. Many said that his technical abilities, while great, were over-used at the expense of a piece's melody. Others, including Dr. Billy Taylor, conceded that perhaps his riffs were too complex for the audience to find approachable or enjoyable. Despite the criticism, his popular appeal never dwindled.
At an unveiling of a Canadian stamp bearing his image (the first stamp
bearing the image of a living person beside the reigning monarch) in 2005,
singer/pianist Diana Krall said that not a day goes by when she doesn't think
of him and his wonderful influence on her. A young Krall first saw Peterson in
performance while she was in her teens.
A stroke slowed his whirlwind schedule for two years, but he returned to the
keyboard despite a small limitation of the use of his left hand, and created two
more records, one a piano duo disc with famed classical violinist Itzhak
Perlman. In his on-line journal, he castigated the Canadian press for
overstating the limitations his stroke, and arthritis had placed on him.
The same journal (he refused to call it a "blog") discussed at length his
love for the piano and for children (he and his wife have a daughter, Celine). A
school in Montreal was named after him (as well as a street, a plaza, and a
theater). He described the sight of all the children and his name on their
school as a moment of "pure joy."
Peterson recorded some four albums of Christmas music, one of which he
re-issued. He loved Christmas music, and mentions it in his personal writings
frequently. How awfully ironic that Oscar Peterson succumbed to kidney failure
on December 24, 2007. His wife and daughter were with him.
The most accurate tribute to Peterson was published in an extensive obituary authored by Richard Severo of the New York Times published on Christmas day, 2007:
Mr. Peterson was one of the greatest virtuosos in jazz, with a piano technique that was always meticulous and ornate and sometimes overwhelming. But rather than expand the boundaries of jazz, he used his gifts in the service of moderation and reliability, gratifying his devoted audiences whether he was playing in a trio or solo or accompanying some of the most famous names of jazz. His technical accomplishments were always evident, almost transparently so. Even at his peak, there was very little tension in his playing.
No more need be said about the man; the awards and honors bestowed upon him
speak for themselves:
1962 Received the Edison Award, Grand Gala du Disque for "The Trio Live from
1972 Appointed Officer in the Order of Canada
1973 Given the Award of Merit by the City of Toronto
1975 Honours from the Alpha Omega Chapter of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity
1975 Received the Diplome d'Honneur from the Canadian Conference of the Arts
1976 Given The Olympic Key to Montreal
1977 Received the Queen's Medal
1978 Received the Genie Award for the Best Film Score - "The Silent Partner"
1979 May 26, 1979 declared "Oscar Peterson Day" in Dade County, Florida
1981 Awarded the Grand Prix du Disque for the "'Night Child" album
1982 Given Honourary Lifetime Membership in the Montreal Musicians Association
1982 Oscar Peterson Scholarship founded by Berklee College of Music, Boston,
1983 Given the Award of Merit by the City of Toronto
1983 August 31, 1983 declared "Oscar Peterson Day" in Baltimore, Maryland
1984 Elected to Board of Directors at the Credit Valley Hospital, Mississauga,
1984 Given the Award of Merit by the Harry Jerome Awards
1984 Promoted to Companion in the Order of Canada
1985 Received the Blue Note Award for Outstanding Excellence in the Jazz Idiom
1987 Given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Black Theatre Workshop, Montreal
1987 Awarded the George Peabody Medal by The Peabody Conservatory of Music,
1987 Given the Arts and Letters Award by the Canadian Club of New York
1987 Given the Roy Thompson Hall Award for Volunteerism, Toronto
1988 Awarded the Certificate of Merit and Appreciation from the Los Angeles
Cultural Affairs Commission
1989 Appointed Officer in the Order of Arts and Letters, France
1990 July 18, 1990 declared "Ray Brown and Oscar Peterson Day" in Los Angeles
1991 Appointed Chevalier de l'Ordre du Quebec
1991 Given the Toronto Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement
1992 Received the Great Canadian Medal from the MacLachlan College & Preparatory
1992 Appointed to Membership in the Order of Ontario
1992 Awarded the Governor General's Performing Arts Award for Lifetime
1993 Awarded the Glenn Gould Prize
1993 Received the Gemini Award for Best Original Music Score in a Program or
Mini-series "In The Key of Oscar"
1995 Received the "Three Key Award" from the Bern International Jazz Festival
1995 Received the ISPA International Award for Outstanding Contribution of
Creative Talent and Inspiration to the World of Jazz
1997 Awarded the Loyola Medal by Concordia University
1997 Received the Jazz at Lincoln Center Award for Artistic Excellence
1999 Concordia University Concert Hall renamed Oscar Peterson Concert Hall.
1999 Received the Praemium Imperiale Award, Nobel equivalent for the Arts.
2000 Album "The Trio" designated as Masterwork by the Audio/Visual
Preservation Trust, Government of Canada.
2000 Received a citation from President Clinton in acknowledgement of
achievements in the field of Music
2000 Received the Society for American Music Award for contributions to the
study and performance of American Music.
2000 Awarded the UNESCO International Music Prize.
2001 Awarded the Skynet Internet Person of the Year Award.
2001 Given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Atlanta International Jazz
2001 Received a Commendation from the U.S. House of Representatives in
recognition of contributions to society.
2001 Week of Aug. 28 - Sept. 2, 2001 declared "Oscar Peterson Week" in San
Francisco, San Jose and Oakland, California.
2002 Awarded the first Lifetime Achievement Award by the Boesendorfer Piano
Company of Austria.
2002 Awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Urban Music Association of
2003 Awarded the President's Award from the International Association for Jazz
2003 Inducted into the Order of the Musketeers of Armagnac.
2003 Received the Civic Award of Merit from the City of Mississauga (Sept.10)
2003 Announcement of street named Oscar Peterson Boulevard in Mississauga
2003 First Inductee into the Mississauga Arts Hall of Fame (Sept.10)
2003 Received the Austrian Cross of Honour for Artistic & Cultural Achievement
2003 Oscar Peterson stamp issued by the Austrian Government (Nov.19)
2004 Distinguished Canadian Leadership Award, presented by the University of
Ottawa in October
2004 Canadian Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame Award, presented in
2005 July 2, 2005: BBC-Radio Lifetime Achievement Award, London, England
2005 August 15, 2005: Commemorative stamp issued by Canada Post; the first time
someone still living has been honored with a stamp (other than the reigning
2005 September 6, 2005: Official opening day of the Oscar Peterson Public
School, Mississauga, Ontario, Canada
HONORARY DEGREES CONFERRED
1973 Carleton University - Doctor of Laws
1976 Queen's University - Doctor of Laws
1979 Concordian University - Doctor of Laws
1980 Mount Alison, Sackville N.B. - Doctor of Music
1981 McMaster University - Doctor of Laws
1981 University of Victoria, B.C. - Doctor of Laws
1982 York University - Doctor of Letters
1983 Northwestern University, Illinois - Doctor of Fine Arts
1985 University of Toronto - Doctor of Laws
1985 University of Laval - Doctor of Music
1991 York University: Installed as Chancellor by the Board of Governors
1994 York University: Chancellor Emeritus
1994 Western Ontario Conservatory of Music - Licentiate in Music Diploma
1994 University of British Columbia - Doctor of Laws
1996 Niagara University, New York - Doctor of Fine Arts
1999 University of Western Ontario - Doctor of Laws
"GRAMMY" AWARDS - National Association of Recording Arts and
1974 Best Jazz Performance by a Group -
"The Trio" - Oscar Peterson, Joe Pass and Niels- Henning Orsted Pedersen
1977 Best Jazz Performance by a Soloist -
"The Giants" - Oscar Peterson
1978 Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Soloist -
"Montreux '77 Oscar Peterson Jam"
1979 Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Soloist "Jousts" - Oscar Peterson
1990 Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Group -
"The Legendary Oscar Peterson Trio Live at the Blue Note"
1990 Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Soloist -
"The Legendary Oscar Peterson Trio Live at the Blue Note"
1991 Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Group "Saturday Night at the Blue Note"
1997 Lifetime Achievement Award -
Instrumental Soloist Lifetime Achievement
VARIED MUSIC AWARDS
The Playboy All-Star Jazz Poll Winner as Best Jazz Pianist awarded in 1959,
1961-66, 1968-69,1975; as Best Group in 1963
The Down Beat Award for Best Jazz Pianist awarded 1950-55, 1959-63, 1965 and
Contemporary Keyboard Award for Best Jazz Pianist awarded 1978-80, 1983 and 1984
The Jazz Report Award for Acoustic Pianist of the Year awarded in 1993, and for
Jazz Musician of the Year in 1996
Awarded the Carnegie Hall Anniversary Medal, 1981
Received the Charlie Parker Bronze Medal
Received the Ville de Salon de Provence Medal
Given The Mexico City Award of Thanks
Awarded The Canadian Stage Band Festival Award, 1982
Juno Award for Best Jazz Album "If You Could See Me Now", 1987
Juno Award for Best Jazz Album "Last Call at the Blue Note", 1992
The Jazz Report Award for Acoustic Pianist of the Year awarded in 1993
The Jazz Report Award for Jazz Musician of the Year awarded in 1996
HALL OF FAME AWARDS
1978 U.C. Berkeley Jazz Festival Hall of Fame Award
1982 Juno Hall of Fame Award (CARAS)
1983 Contemporary Keyboard Hall of Fame Award
1984 Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame Award
1989 American Jazz Hall of Fame Award
1992 The Original Make Believe Ballroom Hall of Fame Award
1997 The International Jazz Hall of Fame Award
2001 Canadian Jazz and Blues Hall of Fame Award
Charts - Top Albums Based on Airplay and Sales
1963 Affinity Pop Albums 127
1963 Bursting Out With The All Star Big Band! Pop Albums 145
1964 Oscar Peterson Trio + One Pop Albums 81
1975 A Salle Pleyel Jazz Albums 25
1976 Porgy & Bess Jazz Albums 26
1990 Live at the Blue Note Top Jazz Albums 9
1991 Saturday Night at the Blue Note Top Jazz Albums 8
1992 Last Call Top Jazz Albums 15
1993 Encore at the Blue Note Top Jazz Albums 20
1995 An Oscar Peterson Christmas Top Jazz Albums 2
1997 Oscar in Paris Top Jazz Albums 17
1997 Tribute Top Jazz Albums 7
- All Music: www.allmusic.com (Accessed
- 8Notes.com: http://www.8notes.com/biographies/peterson.asp (Accessed 12/24/07)
- Northernstars: Canadian Actors, Directors and Movies:
http://www.northernstars.ca/composers/petersonbio.html (Accessed 12/24/07)
- Duke University Website
http://www.duke.edu/~pd10/biography.html (Accessed 12/24/07)
- Official Website: http://oscarpeterson.com/bio/ (Accessed 12/24/07)