Oscar Peterson is living the good life. With 35 years of international success behind him, Canada's supreme gift to the world of jazz can pace himself according to his personal desires.
In his Beverly Hills hotel suite, he deposited his 270-pound frame ("The doctor's been after me to drop some weight") in a comfortable chair and talked about life in the not-quite-so-fast lane. His fluency at the keyboard is matched by his articulacy with words; clearly the autobiography on which he has been working will not require any ghost writer.
"I perform from four to six months a year now," he said. "A good third to a half of the jobs are solo concerts; on the rest, I have my trio--Martin Drew, the English drummer, and David Young, my bassist from Toronto--or, when Joe Pass isn't working his own solo guitar gigs, we make it a quartet."
For the past two weeks, Peterson has been in residence with the quartet at the Westwood Playhouse. Closing tonight, he'll go home to Mississauga, a Toronto suburb, to relax, write music and teach.
"I'm with York University in Toronto as an adjunct professor of music, which means I can go in whenever I want--usually during the winter. Constant travel can be so fatiguing, and conditions on the road are so much more difficult nowadays. I'm 61 and can't afford to be running around the way I once did."
Composing has become a gratifying outlet. "When you play an improvised line, it's gone the next moment. Writing gives me a chance to reflect, to see what I am creating, and perhaps understand myself a little better at a more leisurely pace than when I'm playing."
He has found a tremendous aid to composition in the use of synthesizers. Despite his perennial image as the symbol of acoustic jazz, he usually has as many as 10 of them in his home. In the hotel room were an Oberheim Matrix 12 and a MacIntosh computer.
That Peterson has achieved the electronic expertise necessary for manipulation of this equipment will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the limitless range of his interests. They include astronomy, photography (he has done some brilliant work with cameras), painting, politics and virtually any subject that may come up in a conversation.
"My criticism of the synthesizer field," he said, "is that there are too many instruments--all the different concepts should be unified--and also that one's relationship with the instrument is somewhat impersonal. A pianist who plays the same instrument develops an intense, close relationship with it. That's why, at one point, I became unhappy about the excessive use of the Rhodes electric keyboard, because too many pianists were playing only that and forgetting about the acoustic instrument."
His interest in electronics began long before it became popular. "When I was younger and out on the road a lot, if I'd finished a gig at 2 a.m. and couldn't sleep, I might sit up until 7 in the morning, putting on earphones and working on these things. I was always an audiophile, so I had a natural curiosity about this--especially the humongous ease it gives the composer, the wealth of sounds it can suggest to an arranger." He laughed and added, half seriously, "That's how I spent my after hours time, and maybe that's part of the reason I didn't become a junkie.
Unmarried at present, Peterson has five grown children, all by his first wife, and a son, 8, who lives in Switzerland with the third Mrs. Peterson. None of the adult children is a professional musician.
Though he has spent much of his career in the United States, Peterson has never considered renouncing his Canadian citizenship. Montreal born, he came to New York to play at a Norman Granz "Jazz at the Philharmonic" concert in 1949, and began his extensive travels and recordings for Granz the following year.
"I came up in a great era. You couldn't have a better apprenticeship than I had, working in JATP alongside giants like Lester Young, Benny Carter, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster. Today you have just packaged goods, nothing like the battles that went on during those concerts.
"The spirit we had! I remember one night the saxophonist Sonny Stitt locked horns with someone and played unbelievably well. That night we were all sitting in the band bus waiting to leave; Sonny was the last to get on, and as he walked down the aisle of the bus, to a man everybody stood up and applauded. That's how it was when you threw the giants in with the other giants.
"It was awfully warm out there for piano players, too. I wouldn't call Erroll Garner a dud, or Bud Powell, or Teddy Wilson, or Hank Jones--and the master himself, Art Tatum.
"Today, we have an era of mediocrity, with people being hailed overnight as geniuses. There are so many kingmakers--press agents, critics, who will suddenly decide that this or that person is a phenomenon, and people in the trade buy this, and I'm firmly against it."
Asked about some of the pianists most widely publicized of late, he pulled no punches: "Michel Petrucciani? I don't happen to favor his playing. Whatever happened to the great jazz sense of time? Have things become so cerebral that you can't get into an honest funk bag? Makoto Ozone--he's a promising young pianist who needs to develop. Whatever happened to maturity?
"A lot of what is proffered to the public today as jazz piano is not jazz piano. I play the instrument and I know what it takes to really cook on it. What about Kenny Barron? Now there's a fine pianist who has reached creative peaks, but he has been passed over in favor of people who have not reached those peaks." Barron, 43, came to prominence in the 1960s with Dizzy Gillespie and recently recorded an album for Black Hawk.
"How about Hank Jones? He's been around for years without the kind of hype these new people are getting. I don't mean to jump on Michel or anyone, but right is right; you have to be honest, you have to be selective."
Conditions are better, Peterson believes, in Europe and Japan, where the public has not lost track of genuine jazz values. This is also true, he said, of media exposure. "In most American cities, you turn on the radio and you're not likely to hear any classical music or any jazz. The whole media thing is a commercial-based farce.
"Look at the Grammy awards. (The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences) is about money, not musical prowess. It doesn't matter how bad you are. If I made the lousiest record in the world and it sold 15 million copies, I would be the major guest on the Grammy TV show. On the other hand, I could be the finest jazz or classical performer in the world and, if I won anything at all, chances are my name would be read during the afternoon preliminaries while they're hammering the set together for the big evening show. That's a pretty sick situation." (Peterson won five Grammies during the 1970s.)
How much longer can his career last? Last year he had a bout with arthritis. "My legs got so bad I could hardly move. Thank God that's over with. As for my hands, even though it's been very painful at times, it never got bad enough to affect my playing. Believe me, if it did, I'd just quit. I'm not going to go out there for a single moment if I can't make it happen."