Art Works Blog

A Jazz Odyssey

Washington, DC

"Oscar Peterson plays piano, Munich 1977" by Hans Bernhard (via Wikimedia Commons)

The great Canadian pianist Oscar Peterson (1925?2007) was one of the most remarkable jazz pianists of all times---and a remarkable human being. Jazz knows no borders and so he collaborated with many American musicians---many of them NEA Jazz Masters, including Ray Brown, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, and Milt Jackson. But there were many more NEA Jazz Masters he performed with during his 65-year career and who are included on his legacy of more than 200 recordings. To find out more about his amazing life, which was filled with personal trials and tribulations posed both by illness and racism, I highly recommend his autobiography A Jazz Odyssey: The Life of Oscar Peterson.

Aside from being a very talented pianist and composer (Canadiana Suite), he was also a practical joker and a most loyal friend. In 2005, I had the great fortune to personally meet Dr. Peterson in the lobby of the Brufani Palace Hotel where he resided during his engagement at Umbria Jazz in Perugia, Italy. Although he did not grant interviews during that time, I was able to speak with him and get some insights on his relationship to jazz impresario and record producer Norman Granz with whom he had worked since 1949 and called ?his manager and closest personal friend.? Peterson pointed out that Granz was often misunderstood and considered eccentric when, in reality, he was a shy person who shunned the limelight and did not want any public acknowledgements of his philanthropic deeds and the assistance he lent to jazz musicians in need. Our conversation also touched on the subject of Charlie Parker: ?If it hadn?t been for Norman Granz, Charlie Parker would have ended up in an unmarked grave. And he did that for many other musicians.?  

I recognized that graceful, quiet, intensely private character in Oscar Peterson as well---it also permeated his performance style as his phrasing was elegant yet decisive, vivid but with calculated economy. That evening, he performed in a sold-out arena, in front of fans from around the globe. The jumbo television screens to stage left and right did not hide the fact that Peterson had use only of two fingers or so in his left hand (resulting from a stroke he suffered onstage in 1993). He effectively used them to hit individual notes with indisputable precision---and more effectively than most other pianists using all ten fingers. His performance was fabulous: he was jazz royalty and a class act through and through.

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