Celebrating Oscar Peterson: a jazz piano great

Oscar Peterson in 1977
Oscar Peterson in 1977 Credit: Tom Marcello / Creative Commons
The Queen at the unveiling of the Oscar Peterson statue in Ottawa in 2010 Credit: Dept. of Canadian Heritage

Oscar Peterson (1925-2007) would have been 90 years old on Saturday August 15th 2015. One of the great pianists of any age, he was nicknamed "the Maharaja of the piano" by Duke Ellington.

Here are some key dates and events in the life of a jazz great who made more than 200 recordings, eight of which won Grammy Awards.

The beautifully restored Old Windsor Railway station in Montreal is where tour guide and historian Leah Blythe begins her vivid and highly recommendable tour of Montreal's jazz heritage. 1919 was the year in which Oscar Peterson's father Daniel, from the British Virgin Islands, was employed as a porter by the Canadian Pacific Railroad company.

Oscar Peterson was born in the little Burgundy district of Montreal on August 15th. Each time his father went West on the railroad for his work, he would set Oscar tasks at the piano, and make his approval hard to win.

1940s and 1950s
Peterson was making waves as a young piano player in Canada, with a regular live radio show, ‘Fifteen Minutes Piano Rambling’ and was also as the only black musician in the band of Johnny Holmes from 1944 to 1947. But the most successful entrepreneur in jazz, impresario Norman Granz had bigger ideas, and stage-managed an entrance for him at one of the Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts at Carnegie Hall in 1949, where he was summoned from the audience. The 1950's were the peak period for Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic, which toured the US and Canada until 1957 and in Europe until 1959. 1949 was also the year in which a fifteen-year association with the great bassist Ray Brown began. Granz remained as Peterson's manager until 1990. Granz's agenda for jazz was not just about making it popular, he was also a fervent advocate for desegregation and racial justice.


The early sixties were a prolific period. As Peterson's biographer has written: “Peterson and the group's sheer animal stamina became a cause of wonder. It is doubtful that any group in jazz history ever worked as hard or recorded as much. This was the time of the classic trios with Ray Brown and either guitarist Herb Ellis – an instrumentation which took its cue from Nat King Cole – or with drummer Ed Thigpen. Later in life Peterson described the essence of playing in a trio: “It becomes one unit. We breathe together we think together and play together.”

Oscar Peterson in 1999 Credit: Reuters

1970s and 1980s
Peterson's fame was at its height, and he finally won the first of his eight Grammys in his 50th year in 1975. As bandleader he was a hard taskmaster. The bassist Michel Donato worked with him in the 1970s and remembers: “Oscar liked changing the key. Sometimes without telling us. He would say the title of a tune which we knew in B flat and then count it in One..Two..Three ..F. With 5,000 Japanese in the hall, you had to really think on your feet.”

1990s - 2000s
In later life Peterson became a national institution in Canada, collecting sixteen honorary degrees, a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Achievement Award,honours from Canada, Ontario and Quebec. A concert hall in Montreal and streets and squares have been named after him. He mentored the jazz program in York University I Toronto and was also Chancellor of the university. He had a stroke which took away most of the use of his left hand in 1993. A good example of him playing after the stroke is in a masterclass given he gave at Marciac in France in 1997

Peterson died on 23rd December. There were seven children from his four marriages.

Ruth Abernethy's new statue of Oscar Peterson, which stands outside the National Arts Centre in Ottawa was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II on a state visit to Canada in June 2010. The new director of NAC is the British conductor Alexander Shelley. He is far from being the first conductor/pianist to be in thrall to Oscar Peterson . Both André Previn and Andrew Litton are complete devotees. Alexander Shelley plays Hymn to Freedom as a birthday tribute.

The Queen at the unveiling of the Oscar Peterson statue in Ottawa in 2010 Credit: Dept. of Canadian Heritage

The main celebratory event of this 90th year is the issue of “Oscar with Love” - music composed by Oscar Peterson which has not previously been recorded, all played on the Bosendorfer in his house in Mississauga, Ontario. The project has been instigated by Oscar Peterson's widow Kelly Peterson, and will feature, among others, Monty Alexander, Kenny Barron, Chick Corea, Hiromi, Oliver Jones and Michel Legrand.


Tonight, from the West Side Story
Bruce Barth
(California-born pianist): “Oscar had a very imaginative way of orchestrating tunes for the trio, finding a wide range of sounds, textures, riffs, and bass lines. "Tonight" from "West Side Story" has one of my favourites among Oscar's solos, which each chorus building in power and excitement."

Place St Henri
Kate Williams
(British pianist-composer): “I've got 2 Oscar albums which are favourites: Live In Chicago and The Canadiana Suite - both trio with Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen - I think this was his strongest trio. Place St Henri is joyous and brilliant trio playing all-round. Ed Thigpen's brushes solo particularly grabs my ears!”

I Want to be Happy
Liam Noble
(British pianist): "I Want to be Happy from Stan Getz and the Oscar Peterson Trio from 1957. There are a lot of notes flying about, it's all happening at breakneck speed, and yet it is soulful, the groove is intense.”

I Should Care
William 'Scotty' Barnhart
(Director of the Count Basie Orchestra): "He plays the melody so delicately, he sets it up perfectly in such a way that he can do whatever he wants to do with it. There is nothing haphazard, it is well thought out. It is unbelievable. It is genius.”

Night Train
Helen Sung
(American pianist): "A fellow student in the Monk Institute class said Peterson's Night Train album was essential listening, and he was right: It epitomizes that irresistible swing that still captivates me today.”