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Pianist dazzled jazz world with technique, creativity

Special to The Times

Oscar Peterson, whose technical virtuosity, imaginative improvising and ineffable sense of swing made him one of the jazz world’s most influential and honored pianists, died Sunday. He was 82.

In failing health in recent months, Peterson died from kidney failure at his home in Mississauga, Canada, near Toronto, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Co.

From the time he came on the scene in the United States, beginning his six-decade career with a Carnegie Hall concert in 1949, Peterson was universally admired. His awards are almost countless. Among the most significant were eight Grammys, as well as a Recording Academy lifetime achievement honor in 1997. His home country -- where he continued to live for most of his life -- made him a Companion of the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honor, and he was the first living Canadian to be depicted on a postage stamp.

“I consider him to be the dominant piano player that established my foundation,” pianist Herbie Hancock said Monday. “I had started off as a classical pianist, and I was dazzled by the precision of his playing. But it was primarily the groove that moved me about Oscar. The groove and the blues, but with the sophistication that I was used to from classical music.”

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Singer and pianist Diana Krall, like Peterson a Canadian, was similarly affected, generations later, by Peterson.

“He was the reason I became a jazz pianist,” she told The Times. “In my high school yearbook it says that my goal is to become a jazz pianist like Oscar Peterson. I didn’t know then we’d become such close friends over the years. We were together at his house in October, playing and singing songs together. Now it’s almost impossible for me to think of him in the past tense.”

At a time when the piano players of the fertile post-World War II jazz era were establishing their own beachheads on the scene -- Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, George Shearing, Dave Brubeck, Erroll Garner, among many others -- Peterson’s command of the instrument gave him a unique status, one that hadn’t been seen since the prewar virtuosity of the legendary Art Tatum. Exhibiting a technique that dazzled even the classical pianists who heard him play, Tatum created hard-swinging, instantaneous compositions with content and structure that rivaled the complexities of a Chopin etude.

Peterson performed with some of jazz’s most iconic figures, from Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong to Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald -- revealing the capacity to adjust to a diverse array of styles without losing contact with his own essential musical qualities.

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“We came up about the same time,” Brubeck told The Times some years ago. “And Oscar had everything going for him when he was still very young, maybe before he was 20. He had already encompassed what a jazz pianist should be.”

That, in Peterson’s case, meant a mastery reaching from stride piano through the swing era and into bebop. At several points in his career, he added singing to his arsenal of skills, producing a few recordings in which both his piano and his voice are remarkably reminiscent of Nat “King” Cole.

“Oscar’s playing was magnificent and always wonderfully swinging,” said Marian McPartland after hearing of Peterson’s death. “He was the finest technician that I have seen.”

Both his versatility and his fast-fingered brilliance provoked criticism from some observers who found it difficult to look past Peterson’s technical prowess into the heart of his improvisational inventiveness. But Peterson always shrugged off the comments.

Bassist Ray Brown, one of the key members of Peterson’s classic 1950s trio that also included guitarist Herb Ellis, felt the criticism missed what he believed was the real significance of Peterson’s playing.

“I don’t think very many people actually contribute to the music itself,” Brown once told The Times. “That’s left to a very few, like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. When they came up with that stuff they did, they brought a change in music. More often, I think that contributions are made to the instrument. Take Lester Young, for example. He brought something new to the saxophone, something different from Coleman Hawkins. The music was there; he just did it a different way. What I would say is that Oscar has made an enormous contribution to the piano. It hasn’t been the same since he came on the scene.”

Brubeck, agreeing, put it all in context. “You do what you have to do with whatever means you have at hand,” he said, adding, more pointedly, “But if you’ve got all that technique, it would be terrible not to use it.”

Peterson was quick, however, to acknowledge that he stood on the shoulders of giants. Hancock recalled a dinner at Quincy Jones’ home a few years ago, at which he gathered the courage to ask a question of Peterson that had long troubled him.

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“I’d always been afraid to ask,” said Hancock. “But, knowing my own feelings about Art Tatum, I was curious about how Oscar felt about him. So I asked, and he said, ‘Lemme tell you, sir. . . .’

“And he went on to tell me how, when he was a kid, he was a pretty good piano player, and he’d always hold his own in the cutting contests that young players had. And he said he got really cocky about it.

“So one day his father, who would take him to places to hear other piano players, said there was a guy coming in town that he might want to listen to. And Oscar said he thought, ‘Well, who could this be? I can beat the best of them.’

“It was Art Tatum, of course. And he said that after he heard Tatum play, he went home, went up to the second floor of his house and immediately tried to push his piano out the window. He said he was never cocky again. And I said, ‘You too, Oscar?’ And he said, ‘Me too. Tatum scared me to death.’ ”

Along the way, Peterson scared plenty of other players “to death.” And despite his justified reverence for Tatum, he fashioned a career that easily stood on its own, in weight of accomplishment as well as creative longevity.

That longevity seemed to hit a roadblock in 1993 when the 68-year-old Peterson suffered a stroke, first experiencing its impact while he was performing at New York’s Blue Note club.

“It was strange,” he later told The Times. “I don’t remember any pain or any particular discomfort other than the way the fingers on my left hand reacted.”

Afterward, he was told that the stroke had been caused by high blood pressure rather than arterial blockage.

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Depressed, Peterson returned to his home but didn’t stay inactive for long. He underwent hours of therapy in an effort to regain control and flexibility as well as work through the psychological trauma of having to deal with his instrument in a completely new fashion.

But complete facility never returned to his left hand.

“I still can’t do some of the things I used to be able to do,” he said before a Hollywood Bowl appearance in 2001. “But I’ve learned to do more things with my right hand. And I’ve also moved in a direction that has always been important to me, toward concentrating on sound, toward making sure that each note counts.”

What was remarkable about the performance was the musical effectiveness of Peterson’s reformulation of the way he approached the piano. Although his left hand was primarily used for accents and single notes, his right hand, sometimes playing simultaneous melodies and counterlines, more than filled the gap. As pianist and Peterson acolyte Benny Green once noted, “Oscar can do more with one hand than many pianists can do with two.”

Born Aug. 15, 1925, in Montreal, Peterson began to study piano at the age of 5, first with his father, Daniel, a West Indian immigrant, then with his older sister, Daisy. Despite being hospitalized with lung-damaging tuberculosis at the age of 6, he continued to study both piano and trumpet, urged on by his father, who insisted that all his five children have musical educations.

“Daisy was a real taskmaster when I was a kid,” Peterson recalled. “I used to call her ‘Attila.’ Sometimes my father, who was a train conductor and an avid music fan, used to be away for two weeks at a time, and he always insisted that we practice while he was gone, and gave us the same exercises to do.”

But Peterson, who had perfect pitch and the ability to quickly grasp and reproduce music as he heard it, spent most of the time playing on the street instead of practicing at the piano.

“Daisy always used to practice the lesson hard the day before my father returned,” he said. “So I would sit on the stoop and hear what she played, and get it down that way, by listening without practicing. That worked fine until Dad found out what I was up to and began giving different lessons to each of us.”

At 14, Peterson was studying with Paul de Marky, a Hungarian pianist who loved the classics and jazz and introduced him to Tatum.

“I was already drawn to improvisation,” Peterson said. “I studied classical music, of course, but I liked the idea of creating something new each time I sat down at the keyboard. I still do.”

In 1940, he won an amateur music competition and debuted on the “Fifteen Minutes of Piano Rambling” radio program in Montreal. With his father’s permission, he dropped out of high school to focus on his music and was soon working with the Johnny Holmes big band. By the mid-1940s, he had formed his own trio and was being scouted by concert impresario Norman Granz for his “Jazz at the Philharmonic” concerts.

Quincy Jones, recalling his long friendship with Peterson on Monday, remembered the first time he heard him.

“Back in the day,” he said, “those ‘Jazz at the Philharmonic’ shows were like the big stadium shows we have today. In fact, that’s what got them started. And one year we heard a rumor that Norman Granz had a piano player that he was getting ready to expose . . . to the audience. Well, the joke from people who had heard him was that Oscar used to drink jet fuel and eat gunpowder every morning, because when he came up, he had everybody listening. He was a genius.”

Peterson’s first performance in a “Jazz at the Philharmonic” concert at Carnegie Hall underscored that fact. On stage with Parker, Young and Hawkins, he held his own, jet-starting a career that would remain in high gear into the next century.

“I came up in a great era,” Peterson recalled of his early days with “Jazz at the Philharmonic.” “The spirit we had! I remember one night the saxophonist Sonny Stitt locked horns with someone and played unbelievably well,” he told The Times in 1986. “That night we were all sitting in the band bus waiting to leave; Stitt 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.”

The connection with Granz continued for more than 30 years, resulting in countless performances around the world and dozens of albums. Many featured his classic partnership with Ellis and Brown, a group in which each of the players’ strengths -- Peterson’s virtuosity, Ellis’ blues-drenched phrasing and Brown’s rock-steady rhythms -- came together so perfectly that the trio was as influential with other musicians as it was popular with the jazz-listening audience.

Granz also teamed Peterson with other artists in the ‘70s -- Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry, Joe Pass among them. Recordings continued to be released at a prolific pace into the ‘80s, sometimes as many as six in a single year for the Verve and Pablo labels.

Peterson’s recordings of the music of George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Harold Arlen and Cole Porter set a standard for jazz interpretations of the Great American Songbook.

Although he was troubled for years by arthritic knees, Peterson continued to supplement his performances and recordings with other activities. His compositions include the atmospheric “Canadian Suite,” the musical portrait “Trail of Dreams” and the “Music Box Suite” (also known as “Daisy’s Dream,” for his sister).

Peterson was articulate and informative on a variety of subjects including astronomy, photography, painting and politics. As communicative in his observations about jazz as he was in his musical performances, he may have provided the most insightful view of the forces that drove his lifetime pursuit of improvisational expressiveness.

The “ ‘will to perfection,’ as I have termed it,” he wrote in his autobiography, “A Jazz Odyssey: The Life of Oscar Peterson,” “seems especially prevalent in jazz musicians. Creating an uninhibited, off-the-cuff musical composition in front of a large audience is a daredevil enterprise. . . . It requires you to collect all your sense, emotions, physical strength and mental power, and focus them totally onto the performance -- utter dedication, every time you play. And if that is scary, it is also uniquely exciting: Once it’s bitten you, you never get rid of it.”

Peterson was married four times, divorced three. He is survived by his fourth wife, Kelly, and their daughter, Celine. His survivors also include six children from his previous marriages and several grandchildren.

Services are pending.

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Some of his favorite songs

(Editor’s note: In this article, which first appeared in The Times in 1998, Oscar Peterson discussed some of his favorite recordings.)

Like many musicians, Oscar Peterson doesn’t usually sit around listening to his albums. If he did take the time to pick out a few to enjoy, what would they be?

That’s really hard to say, Peterson says. There are so many. Nonetheless, here are his off-the-cuff choices and comments, in the order they came to mind:

* “Ain’t but a Few of Us Left” (Original Jazz Classics). “I like this album I did with Bags vibist Milt Jackson. My playing on that was to my liking, groove-wise.”

* “Exclusively for My Friends” (MPS, 4-CD boxed set). “I like some of the albums in the MPS solo series. I was sort of inside of myself for those albums, and it was just right. There were no distractions, and I was sitting in a living room, and that probably helped -- because I’m not really a studio person.”

* “West Side Story” (Verve). “This one was a challenge. The music was really strange to us, not the kind of thing we were doing. We actually recorded the whole album in one day, which is what we did at that time, but when they played it back for me, I said, ‘Cancel. That’s not what I want.’ So we went back into the studio and redid it, and that’s what we released, the way I wanted it to be. Now I think that’s one of my better albums.”

* “Oscar Peterson and Dizzy Gillespie” (Pablo); “Oscar Peterson and Harry Edison” (Original Jazz Classics). “I love both these albums because there’s such a total contrast on Dizzy and Sweets’ end. And I had to play differently for each of them.”

* “How Long Has This Been Going On” (with Sarah Vaughan) (Pablo). “Obviously, it’s not mine, but I love the way this album came out.”

* “Ella and Oscar” (Pablo). “I’ve done numerous albums with Ella Fitzgerald, and I love this one. It’s one of my most favorite.”

* “We Get Requests” (Verve). Among the many trio albums, this is one that I really feel worked very well for us.”


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