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Jazz Workshop: Et Tu, Oscar Peterson?

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Alas. This column should have been my much-promised and –delayed “Best of 2007” post, which I’ve hyped endlessly and shamelessly in the comments on fellow music writers’ articles. (Sorry, guys.)

And yet, and yet. Instead I must pause to remark how the cruel fates have taken yet another great from us – via kidney failure at the age of 82 – in the year that’s already cost the world Michael Brecker, Andrew Hill, Rod Poole, Art Davis, Herb Pomeroy, Joe Zawinul, Donald Ayler, Cecil Payne, Frank Morgan, and the titanic Max Roach. Oh, Oscar Peterson – why, as Kurt Cobain’s mother asked, did you have to go and join that stupid club?

Often perceived as the sole Canadian contribution to the jazz pantheon, Peterson was, of course, one of the greatest piano virtuosi in the history of the instrument, rivaled only by Art Tatum as the greatest pianist in jazz history. It seems almost cruel to lump Peterson yet again with Tatum, one of his two idols (Nat “King” Cole being the other) and the man with whom he was and will be forever compared. They even shared many of the same criticisms: their swing was old-fashioned; their musical imaginations too narrow (Tatum “had no melodic sense,” Peterson was “harmonically dim”); and, of course, the Amadeus complaint: “Too many notes, Majesty.” They also share the claim to that “Greatest” title, and the jazz world is generally split over whether Tatum or Peterson receives the throne.

Enough of that. It’s a contest of minutia, and trying too hard to make the ultimate judgment means parsing each player to the extent that we forget to enjoy either. Let’s forget for a moment about what he might arguably have been and talk instead about what Peterson definitely was.

He was a soloist of stupefying talent and skill. Those “too many notes” he played were all too often done in the context of careening glissandos that defy the brain’s ability to process them, and swing so vicious that it makes the room spin. Peterson’s 1968 version of Ellington’s “Perdido,” to name but one example, is like taking your ears on an amusement park ride, full as it is of sudden drops and wild course changes.

He was a surprisingly sensitive and attentive accompanist. The occasional comment that Peterson was too heavy-handed had equally occsasional truth to it. Yes, he could certainly overplay, but that’s an indulgence that anyone in any music, and jazz most especially, is vulnerable too.

The fact is that Peterson listened closely when he played behind anyone. The most obvious examples of this are his work with Ella Fitzgerald and, as the house pianist for Verve Records. But even when he had above-the-line billing, Peterson was not the ham that he’s sometimes made out to be. For proof, one need look no further than his comp and solo on Very Tall, the 1961 album his trio (with Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen) recorded with vibist Milt Jackson. That high-end solo is a little cute, but careful and thoughtful.

He was a dedicated educator. Though it’s somewhat forgotten today, Peterson was the founder and president of Toronto’s Advanced School of Contemporary Music in 1959. Though the school only lasted a few years, closing in 1964, it ranks alongside John Lewis’ Lenox School of Jazz in pioneering the notion of jazz education. And since the ASCM’s closure, Peterson has been a tireless educator nonetheless, long affiliated with York University in Toronto and even, in the early ‘90s, its chancellor.

He was an evangelist for the musicians he loved. It is Peterson who, for one thing, kept the world from forgetting that Nat Cole was a piano player, and a great one, before he was a singer. He would also turn his fans back to the playing of Teddy Wilson and Count Basie. And Peterson made it a point to spotlight the other members of his bands as players of great abilities in their own right, not mere accompanists or support for himself. Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis, Irving Ashby, Louie Bellson, Louis Hayes, Niels-Henning Orsted Peterson, and Joe Pass are among the many musicians who owe no small part of their reputations to Peterson.

He was a man who defied the easy regimentation that race issues provide. In 1992, CBC news asked him if he still took issue with the statement that jazz was music of and by black people. “It’s not so much an issue as a stupid statement to start with,” Peterson replied. “Music is music. Anyone can make music. It’s either music you like or music you don’t like….I really don’t have time in my life for that kind of thinking. If you can’t enjoy a human being just for being a human being, I don’t know what you are.”

He was a, perhaps the, leading light of music in his native Canada. A Companion of the Order of Canada – the highest recognition that a private citizen can attain – Peterson, who dropped out of high school to become a piano player, ended up with honorary doctorates from no less than 10 Canadian universities and a school in Ontario named for him. Montreal's Concordia University named their music hall after him, and the courtyard in Toronto's largest office complex, the Toronto-Dominion Centre, is Oscar Peterson Square. He's a man who commands the respect of an entire nation.

But what he was more than anything else was a piano player, admired, beloved, and universally revered. Duke Ellington made a telling comment about him onstage one evening 40 years ago. "When I was a small boy my music teacher was Mrs Clinkscales. The first thing she ever said to me was, 'Edward, always remember, whatever you do, don't sit down at the piano after Oscar Peterson.'"

The daunting aside to that comment, of course, is that every piano player to come along since then has sat down at the piano after Oscar Peterson. And every piano player to come along in the future will, too. His is a shadow that may be inescapable. And while his death adds to 2007's unforgivable cruelty to the jazz world, it serves both to cap and to remind us of a long, rich, beautifully lived and realized life. The tireless artist, entertainer, educator, and ambassador is finally resting.

So long, Oscar. 

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About Michael J. West

  • Duke’s “put-ons” were compliments.

  • Lorenzo –

    Duke was making a joke. 🙂

  • Lorenzo

    …Duke Ellington made a telling comment about him onstage one evening 40 years ago. “When I was a small boy my music teacher was Mrs Clinkscales. The first thing she ever said to me was, ‘Edward, always remember, whatever you do, don’t sit down at the piano after Oscar Peterson.'”

    This sentence is puzzling me… and making me laugh!
    The Duke was born in 1899, and Peterson in 1925… so, when Ellington was a small boy… I think you can draw an inference…

    Thus, either Mrs Clinkscales (nice name!!!) was a prophet, or, in the late ’40s, when Peterson was becoming famous, Ellington, notorious “Peter Pan”, was still a small boy…

    I apologize for my sarcasm, but I’m wondering who have invented such a canard…

  • MrD

    Thanks for the best review of Oscar’s contribution to our love of jazz.
    Your comment “Let’s forget for a moment about what he might arguably have been and talk instead about what Peterson definitely was” should have been applied by many of the newspaper writers who just repeated the old mantra that Peterson was just technique with no soul

  • Thank you, Pico. Man, this was a hard one to write.

  • Whenever a jazz great has left us you always seem to rise to the occasion, Michael. Yet another informative, eloquant and thought-provoking tribute from Mr. West.

    Rest peacefully, Oscar.