Oscar Peterson Biography

15 August 1925, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, d. 23 December 2007, Mississauga, Ontario, Canada. Blessed with an attractive stage personality, this behemoth of mainstream jazz’s fluid technique was influenced by Art Tatum, Errol Garner and, later, George Shearing. After studying trumpet, illness redirected Peterson to the piano. His enthusiasm resulted in endless hours of practice that helped to mould his remarkable ‘butterfly’ technique. In his mid-teens, after winning a local talent contest in 1940, Peterson was heard regularly on radio in Canada and beyond. By 1944, he was the featured pianist with the nationally famous Johnny Holmes Orchestra before leading his own trio. Peterson was unusual in not serving an apprenticeship as an older player’s sideman. Although early recordings were disappointing, he received lucrative offers to appear in the USA but these were resisted until a debut at New York’s Carnegie Hall with Norman Granz’s Jazz At The Philharmonic in September 1949. Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Zoot Sims, Ella Fitzgerald and Stan Getz were among Peterson’s collaborators during a career that encompassed hundreds of studio and concert recordings. With 1963’s Affinity as his biggest seller (although far from his best album), Peterson’s output ranged from albums drawn from the songbooks of Cole Porter and Duke Ellington, to a Verve Records single of Jimmy Forrest’s perennial ‘Night Train’, and 1964’s self-written Canadiana Suite. Although he introduced a modicum of Nat ‘King’ Cole -type vocals into his repertoire in the mid-50s, Peterson maintained a certain steady consistency of style that withstood the buffeting of fashion.

From 1970 onwards, Peterson worked with no fixed group, often performing alone, although at the end of the 70s he had a long stint with bass player Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, which continued well into the 80s. The soundtrack to the movie Play It Again Sam, the hosting of a television chat show, a 1974 tour of Soviet Russia, and 1981’s A Royal Wedding Suite (conducted by Russ Garcia) were later commercial high points of a fulfilling and distinguished professional life. While musicians as diverse as Steve Winwood, Dudley Moore and Weather Report’s Joe Zawinul absorbed much from Peterson discs, younger admirers were advantaged by his subsequent publication of primers such as Jazz Exercises And Pieces and Peterson’s New Piano Solos. In 1993, a stroke left Peterson without the use of his left hand but two years later he was playing again and if his deftness was somewhat impaired it was only in contrast with his earlier brilliance. In 1997, he was awarded a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement. At the start of the new century he continued touring and recording, playing with remarkable vigour, enthusiasm and skill. His health declined in 2007 and he died of renal failure in December.

Peterson’s dazzling technique and unflagging swing helped to make him one of the most highly regarded and instantly identifiable pianists in jazz. Although the technical qualities of his work have sometimes cooled the emotional heart of his material, Peterson’s serious commitment to jazz was undeniable. The high standard of his work over many years was testimony to his dedication and to the care that he and his mentor, Granz, exercised over the pianist’s career. Throughout this time, Peterson displayed through his eclecticism an acute awareness of the history of jazz piano, ranging from stride to bop, from James P. Johnson to Bill Evans, but always with Art Tatum as an abiding influence. However, this influence is one that Peterson was always careful to control. Tatum may have coloured Peterson’s work but he never shaped it. Thus, for all his influences, Peterson was very much his own man. Yet, for all the admiration he draws from other pianists, there is little evidence that he had many followers. He will be remembered for his deft butterfly technique; his fingers moved lightly over the keys at remarkable speed and yet the music never lost intensity or beauty. Peterson was truly a jazz giant in every sense of the word. He may well prove to be the last in the line of master musicians in the history of jazz piano.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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