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Jazz World Mourns Oscar Peterson

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Jazz pianist and composer Oscar Peterson died near Toronto, Ontario, Canada, December 23, of kidney failure. He was 82. Often compared to Erroll Garner and Art Tatum, Peterson modernized the jazz piano. His career spanned more than 45 years, and included dozens of albums with trios and orchestras, as well as numerous appearances in concert halls and festivals around the world. VOA's Ed Kowalski has more on one of the jazz world's most accomplished artists, Oscar Peterson.

While best-known as a jazz soloist and the leader of his famous trio, Oscar Peterson was considered by many critics to be truly at his best when he accompanied other well-known soloists. A 1982 song, "Weaver Of Dreams," features Freddie Hubbard on trumpet with Oscar Peterson adding his soft touch on acoustic piano. When he wasn't backing such artists as Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong or Coleman Hawkins, he performed on organ and clavichord, and even sang on a tribute album to Nat "King" Cole, titled "With Respect To Nat."

He was born Oscar Emmanuel Peterson on August 15, 1925, in Montreal, Canada. At age six, he began formal training in classical music. His jazz skills were first recognized in his late teens when he was hired to play piano on a weekly radio show. He said he learned jazz by listening to a combination of local and nationally-known musicians.

"I had to teach myself by influences and by being around the jazz that was being played in Montreal at that time," he said. "And there were a few, quite a few good players."

His favorites were piano greats Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson and Erroll Garner, artists whose recordings were beamed across the border from American radio stations. Peterson said his education in jazz came primarily from the airwaves and jukeboxes.

"We were working mainly on what we heard from on the American networks and records," he said. "And, of course, coupled with the occasional appearance of people like [Duke] Ellington, [Count] Basie, the big names in jazz. And at that time, certainly, there was no way that a young aspiring jazz pianist could go to anyone specifically and say, 'I'd like to take lessons in jazz piano.'"

Peterson's four-year stint in Canada's famed Johnny Holmes Orchestra led to his first American performance at Carnegie Hall in 1949. Under the management of jazz producer Norman Granz, he formed the Oscar Peterson Trio with Ray Brown on bass and Herb Ellis on guitar. Pleased with his work with Brown and Ellis, he once said, "At our worst, we have to sound better than the best guys out there." In 1958, Ellis was replaced by drummer Ed Thigpen, who remained in the trio until its demise seven years later.

Peterson continued to record as a soloist, releasing as many as five albums a year. He won the first of his seven Grammy Awards in 1974. After a long absence, the original Oscar Peterson Trio re-united in 1990 with drummer Bobby Durham for three consecutive evenings at the Blue Note nightclub in New York City. Each show was recorded live with two albums from those concerts winning Grammys in the Best Jazz Instrumental Performance categories. Record executive Donald Elfman says it was a weekend that made jazz history.

"The atmosphere was sort of electric in the club and on the stage," he said. "Everybody knew that they were witnessing this re-birth of what was once considered the best trio in the world, the best jazz group in the world. And they hadn't lost it. Every inch of the place was packed. People were screaming. Whatever people feel about Oscar Peterson - some people feel he's too technical and he plays too many notes - but you can't help but be dazzled by him."

In addition to leading various trios, Peterson was a prolific composer. His "Canadiana Suite" was nominated as one of the best jazz compositions of 1965. He was also a great admirer of America's most popular songwriters. His repertoire included compositions by Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Duke Ellington and Richard Rodgers. Peterson often returned to the classical idiom, performing with various symphony orchestras throughout his lifetime. He once said that the difference between classical and jazz was improvisation.

"The classical pianist is a regimented, highly-trained musician which a jazz pianist is in some ways," Peterson said. "But it stops when you come to the improvisational end. At that point, the classical pianist is basically giving an interpretation of the music written. The jazz pianist is doing improvisationally what I would call 'instant composition.'"

Peterson published his autobiography, A Jazz Odyssey, in 2002. Three years later, he became the first living Canadian to be honored by that country with a postage stamp. Peterson is survived by his wife, Kelly, and a daughter, Celine.

 

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