‘If I go for something, I go the whole way.’ (Oscar Peterson)
It is a remarkable facet of Oscar Peterson’s fame that jazz fans the world over feel they have a personal relationship with him. To British audiences, for example, he was one of the first jazz musicians to communicate successfully on television. In the BBC TV series Piano Party, which he presented during the mid-1970s, his large and congenial presence opened up jazz music in an astonishing way. Viewers had the opportunity to engage with the person, gain a deeper understanding of the music, and marvel at a flawless technique and inventive brilliance. This is symptomatic of Peterson’s general openness to new approaches, even new technologies, that continues to the present day. His official website contains an ongoing personal diary, and is more than simply an exercise in self-promotion. He has branched out into electronic music and has created a studio at his home in Montreal.
The roots of Peterson’s technique are a combination of classical training with the influence of pianists such as Earl Hines and in particular Art Tatum, with whom he has often been compared. It was partly due to witnessing Tatum’s phenomenal technique that Peterson was driven to perfect his own skills. His big hands enabled extremely rapid left hand changes and seemingly effortless runs and arpeggios in the right hand, as well as some exciting leaps and ways of breaking up melodic line. Although his characteristic sound contains thick, rich chords, it is his approach to line that has produced the most appreciation, both positive and negative. At their best, Peterson’s melodic lines have a fascinating and elegant approach to phrasing, and a speed and lucidity of harmonic implication which is simply dazzling. It is perhaps a mark of how close to the improvisatory ‘edge’ they come, that on occasion the decorative aspect of the lines has been criticised disrupting the structure of the song.
Peterson’s best work has often been done in a trio context, where he has the greatest opportunity for personal expression and creativity. The celebrated Oscar Peterson Trio recorded and performed countless concerts and albums from the 1950s onwards. The classic line-up, formed in 1953 with Herb Ellis on guitar and Ray Brown on bass, was reunited in 1990 for an emotional concert at the Blue Note, New York, but the trio went through several changes in personnel in the intervening years. This included the substitution of drummer Ed Thigpen for Ellis from 1958–65, and new partners such Danish bassist Neils-Henning Orsted Pederson and American guitarist Joe Pass during the 1970s. The secret of Peterson’s musical success in all of these trios was the generation of a musical energy infused with a sense of swing. Bouncing off the other musicians, Peterson would build solos towards large climactic right-hand chords and intervals that moved slowly relative to the more rapid passages either side. Another familiar stylistic trick was double-handed tremolos – rapid ‘rolled’ chords that create a sense of tension and excitement. There are so many recordings of Peterson in this vein that it is hard to single out one album, but Night Train, 1963, is generally regarded as a classic.
Ever since his surprise debut at Carnegie Hall in 1949, Peterson has been managed by the impresario Norman Ganz. This has led to many fruitful concerts and collaborations, including work with orchestras, various ensembles and vocal groups. In addition, Peterson has released hundreds of albums, either through Ganz’s labels or on the MPS label and its producer Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer, for whom he made some of his finest recordings in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Peterson’s original compositions include the celebrated Canadiana Suite, 1963, and the Hymn to Freedom, which became one of the crusade hymns of the Civil Rights Movement. When Peterson played with the Johnny Holmes Dance Orchestra in the 1940s, he encountered racial prejudice as the only black member of the band. In 2001, his musicianship has conquered the world, and he has made his contribution to ending the kind of attitudes which blighted the lives of many young dance and jazz musicians. In the interim, he has worked with most of the jazz greats, including Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, and has overcome both a stroke and arthritis to continue playing right up to the present day.
He passed away on December 23, 2007, Tront Canada