Though it’s easy to assume all jazz greats come from America, Oscar Peterson was a native Canadian. He was born and raised in Montreal by his parents who emmigrated from the British West Indies and Virgin Islands. His first instrument was the trumpet, but Peterson eventually took on piano and classical training. The classical study soon turned to a passion for learning jazz. Peterson was known to play 12-14 hours a day during this period. He speaks about that time in this 2002 interview with Allan Gould. “…the piano became part of my everyday life. It was part of me. I’d get up in the morning singing things that I wanted to play that day.”
As a teenager seeking out Jazz, Peterson would sneak in time with the radio to listen to the legends of the era. He also played along with records, a method he later recommended to his students.
When I was teaching at York University, whenever the students would ask, “How can I play jazz piano?” I used to tell them: “Go downstairs, go to the library and get a Nat Cole album or a Lester Young album. Play along with it, and keep playing along with it until you can play with them normally.” That’s what I did.
Peterson lists Art Tatum, Dizzie Gillespie, Lester Young, and Roy Eldridge as early influences. Listen to Peterson speak about sneaking in radio time to listen to Jazz greats and his early influences including Art Tatum in this NPR interview from 2012.
In a 1962 interview with Les Tomkins, Peterson says of Tatum:
“I’m an Art Tatum-ite. If you speak of pianists, the most complete pianist that we have known and possibly will know, from what I’ve heard to date, is Art Tatum. I’m not classing myself in that calibre of talent, but Art Tatum was accused of the same thing that I’m being accused of today – that he played so much in so few bars. Yet in the same reviews or opinions where they say “Oh, he plays too much, everything is a run,” they turn round and say “But he’s a genius.” So there’s no way of satisfying them.”
Oscar Peterson was eventually discovered by producer Norman Granz, with whom he would work for most of his career. Granz produced “Jazz at the Philharmonic”, a series of concerts, tours, and recordings featuring the preeminent Jazz musicians of the day. Ganz introduced Peterson in 1949 at a Carnegie Hall performance of Jazz at the Philharmonic.
By the late 1950’s, Peterson had attained worldwide recognition as a jazz pianist. His well documented career would send him around the world with touchstones in the areas of civil rights and higher education, achieving awards and recognitions along the way. Oscar Peterson continued to perform through 2007, the year of his death.
Each month, Jazz Arts Initiative presents The JAZZ ROOM at The Stage Door Theater, a showcase of local and regional talent paying tribute to the greatest musicians of Classic Jazz. This month, to cap of it’s 4th Season, The JAZZ ROOM features pianist Charles Craig and his tribute to Oscar Peterson. Tickets are available for 6pm and 8:15pm showings of The JAZZ ROOM.