12/31/11 By Tom Wilmeth
Oscar Peterson in Conversation
Ruminations & Rebuttals, December 1979
I spoke with the great jazz pianist Oscar Peterson on a winter afternoon in 1979 at his Minneapolis hotel. He was in town to perform his own extended composition with the Minnesota Orchestra called “The Canadiana Suite,” a work originally released by Verve in 1964 as a trio recording. I believe now that Peterson had revived and rearranged this for performance because of his renewed interest in long-form pieces for jazz. These orchestral compositions would culminate in his 1981 album The Royal Wedding Suite, a celebration of the union of Prince Charles and Lady Diana. Although each suite shows Peterson’s abilities as a composer and an arranger, both are now largely forgotten.
In spite of his concert with an orchestra being only hours away, Mr. Peterson was happy to discuss his own solo and small group performances. However, he was also quick to draw parallels between jazz forms and classical music. As we began, I pointed out which of his albums I liked best and asked him to comment on some of his newer Pablo Records releases. He was happy to speak in specifics about albums from his entire career. As we neared the end of the brief amount of time his agent had set aside for me, I used one of my mainstay questions of that time, his interest in Duke Ellington. I asked this specifically because of the major orchestral jazz piece that he was about to perform, and I compared it with some of Ellington’s extended works. This discussion on the Duke led to some intense reaction, as did my later use of the names Art Tatum and Keith Jarrett in the same sentence.
As with any interview situation, there are certain conversational threads I regret not following. This is especially true with over 30 years of hindsight. What strikes me now is how Mr. Peterson went out of his way to stress that he is “not a musical bigot” about the electric piano. I can’t help but wonder what he thought of Chick Corea’s or Herbie Hancock’s use of the Rhodes as their primary instrument for several years in the mid-1970s. I would also have liked to hear what he thought of Miles Davis’ later records, Bitches Brew and beyond. But even if some of this had occurred to me during our discussion, this sort of questioning can seem confrontational. As the transcript makes clear, we made our way into some controversy without my seeking it. Fortunately, as I thought then and now, it was not directed at me.
I began by asking Mr. Peterson about his work with his various trios and if he missed that setting.
OSCAR PETERSON: For over 20 years I’ve had trios of one type of another. And as much as I’ve enjoyed them, it’s quite a long time to spend with one format. With Jazz being the creative and improvisational music it is, the solo [performance] gives me a chance to do whatever I feel like doing at the piano without having to worry about somebody coming with me. I’m not saying this to deride any of the trios, because I have loved each one for various reasons. The solo setting is selfish but it gives me a chance to really get with my instrument and do my own personal thing.
TOM WILMETH: You like having everything left up to you, the entire responsibility for the music.
OP : That’s right. And I think it’s no different for people going to hear a classical music recital. It’s a piano, it’s a player, and it’s their thoughts together.
TW: Do you ever go back and listen to your trio’s Verve label recordings at all? I really enjoy the We Get Requests album.
OP: Oh yeah, that’s a favorite with a lot of people.
TW: And your adaptation of the strong writing from West Side Story.
OP: That is strong music, you’re right. That was a challenge for us because the music is different. It doesn’t lay like ordinary jazz selections of that particular era. I like that album.
TW: I also like Trio Live From Chicago.
OP: I think that is one of our most powerful albums because it was [recorded] at a time when that particular trio of Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen had become saturated within itself and it had the confidence of its own professional quality. We all knew what we could do within the context of that trio and it worked well at that particular time. I’m hoping that one will be reissued soon.
TW: Could you point to any of your more recent Pablo albums that you are particularly pleased with?
OP: I like the Nightchild album—that’s the one where I use the electronic keyboards. There were questions asked about that because it was a departure. I thought it was time to put the question to rest and musically show that I’m not a bigot about the electric piano. I think it has its place, obviously, by all the marvelous things that have been done, not only with electronic piano, but with some of the other electronic instruments as well. It’s just another musical statement in a different medium, that’s all.
TW: Bobby Lyle maintains that the Fender Rhodes has a very locked-in sound.
OP: He’s right. That’s the problem with electric piano. You’re dealing with so many overtones and they are forever there. The acoustical piano has a much cleaner deliverance from an audio standpoint—when you hit a note, you hear the note. When you hit a note on an electric piano, it can filter off into other overtones and will roll on you, so to speak. No matter what you do it has a tremendous layover, note for note, that you don’t have on the acoustic piano unless you make it play that way. I feel I can do a lot more with the deviation of sound with an acoustic. As I say, I have nothing against the electric piano; once in a while it’s a nice change and it’s fun to play. They’re fine for the pop players who just use it for certain effects, but not for continual, serious playing in a jazz group.
TW: When you get the time, whose albums do you put on at home?
OP: I listen to everybody. I am a fan of certainly most of the pianists. That’s the broadest field of all. Guitar, I find, is a wide field. I like to listen to everybody from Lester Young and Dizzy right up to Freddie Hubbard. I love Hank Jones and what Joe Pass does. I’m not a musical bigot, totally. I have my likes and dislikes as everyone else does, but I listen to a wide range of music.
TW: Do you find yourself going back and putting on Ellington?
OP: Of course. You have to. I always try to include some Ellington in every concert that I do. I think it’s almost mandatory.
TW: Ellington’s major work “Black, Brown, and Beige,” drew a lot of criticism for trying to stretch the boundaries of traditional jazz. You have written some pieces for jazz and orchestra, including “The Canadiana Suite,” which you will be performing tonight. Do you have any thoughts on the idea that jazz should stay away from serious musical structures and only be considered light music?
OP: You have all kinds of heavy works [in jazz]. You can go through the Gil Evans book and find some pretty heavy pieces in there. Without getting into [listing] a vast number of players—Cecil Taylor’s work is pretty heavy, if you want to go that way. You get writers the magnitude of Ellington and Strayhorn—you can’t get much heavier than that for writing, I don’t care in what medium you want to write it. There are classical composers who admire these men. You’re talking about the validity of two geniuses that elect to [compose] that type of lengthy work. It has definite credibility.
TW: Leroy Jenkins came through town a while back and said that, to him, everything is passé except new, free jazz. I mentioned Ellington and he stopped and admitted that Ellington was perhaps the one exception.
OP: He said, “Everything”?
TW: It was a blanket statement that, for him, almost all jazz from the past is passé.
OP: Well, that’s a stupid statement. You can’t wipe away all that talent by saying that. That shows an inadequacy in his own make-up. One thing I teach new players is to respect those who have gone before them. They never would have arrived if the others hadn’t first paved the way. The easiest way to become a talented artist, if you have that kind of talent, is to be very open and receptive to what has gone before you. That gives you a bigger vocabulary and a larger understanding. When I had the Jazz School we insisted that all of the students listen to what had gone on before, whether it be Miles or Bird. You can’t negate a talent like Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie and say it’s passé. It’s the fundamentals of jazz! And to be ignorant enough to say that this is passé … [long pause] You know, it’s people like that I can’t tolerate. I get very upset about that because it’s a form of musical racism that doesn’t exist with true artists. If you were to talk with any of the greats, certainly Duke Ellington or Dizzy Gillespie and so forth, they don’t look around and say, “This isn’t any good from here to here.” They just won’t do that. They are very intelligent and discerning in their likes and dislikes, and I think that’s what helps to make them great artists.
[Note: After this impassioned and angry rebuttal to Leroy Jenkins, I thought it best to return to safe turf, such as discussing his primary idol of the piano.]
TW: You are spoken of as the natural successor to Art Tatum. You certainly don’t need to be called the next anybody, but do you have any comments in this comparison?
OP: They probably say that because they know of my total involvement with the piano. I don’t know what being the next Art Tatum means. There never was and never will be another Art Tatum. If I’m an extension of his thinking, fine. But I didn’t set out to be that. It’s like who will the next Dizzy be? There won’t really be a next Dizzy, but there are people who are greatly influenced by him. If you were to ask me who the next Oscar Peterson will be, I really don’t know. I am aware of exerting some influence on some of the young pianists, but I believe in the individual. Consequently, I believe everyone is influenced by the people that precede them, whether they realize it or not. And this is why I say that it is important that you listen. Eventually you shed whatever shell that [you have] of influence, and you come out on your own. If you have talent. I hope that what I’ve been doing has helped to revitalize interest in the Grand Lady of the Acoustical Piano, which is sort of the definitive instrument.
TW: Speaking of Art Tatum, we can thank Norman Granz for recording Tatum heavily during the last three years of his life: the 13-album solo set and the eight-record group masterpiece set.
OP: That was Norman’s major project, a fantastic project, and I think the whole world owes him a debt for that one! Art, in many cases, was very hard to find on records. This was a concerted effort certainly by Art Tatum and by Norman to put together this group of recordings.
TW: Speaking of expansive projects, as a pianist who often gives solo concerts, do you have any thoughts on Keith Jarrett and specifically his recent 10-record set of solo performances? Art Tatum is a different story.
OP: He sure is!!
TW: …but does anybody warrant a 10-record set like that?
OP: I don’t think Keith Jarrett does. I don’t happen to be a Jarrett fan, I’ll be very frank with you. I think it’s a fad. Dizzy had a very astute saying that I quote many times: Before a concert one time Norman Granz asked the horns to keep their solos short because of time limitations. I remember Dizzy looked up and said, “Listen, I can play everything I know in four bars.” That is a comedic saying, true, but I watched a solo Keith Jarrett television special and … it was not necessary. He didn’t do anything. I don’t like to come down on somebody, but he’s kidding. I would sooner hear 15 minutes of Art Tatum than to listen to two hours of Jarrett. There is just so much you can do. I can play the piano and I can sit down and go through that kind of performance and buffalo X amount of people. I’m not trying to nail him to the cross; I just don’t believe in that type of performance. You have to be a little more concise, a little more selective in what you decide to do. Anything you have to say that bears saying, you don’t need two hours to say it in. You can say it very concisely within five minutes, believe it or not. This is what the great orators of the world maintain, and the same thing applies to music.
TW: Just to reiterate, you feel that Jarrett is kidding, and he plays as he does because it’s currently popular.
OP: It became popular, and as a one-shot thing I don’t put it down. But is this going to be a continuing thing? Are we going to have to listen to 10 more albums to find out what he does? With the exception of Tatum, who was such a magnanimous talent that he certainly deserved … well, if he did 13 albums, he deserved 40. I wouldn’t want to sit down with Jarrett’s 10-record project. I really wouldn’t. I think I’m fairly productive and I know how much thought has gone into each of my albums, and I wouldn’t hesitate to sit down and play against Jarrett on that same kind of thing. I think I could do a much better job than that if I really wanted to, but I wouldn’t want to sit down for two hours and ramble along the piano. I don’t see where it is any way necessary. [pause] Keith Jarrett is the Liberace of jazz. I’m not trying to hurt him, but it’s true—he doesn’t play anything!
The televised solo piano performance by Keith Jarrett which Oscar Peterson saw was probably the August 1977 concert filmed in Shelburne, Vermont, and subsequently broadcast by PBS.
The 10-record set by Keith Jarrett is The Sun Bear Concerts, recorded in 1976 and issued by ECM Records in 1978. The sheer length of this album prompted such reaction as Musician Magazine’s review headline, “Would You Buy a Ten-Record Set from This Man?” Even 34 years later, in a world accustomed to long-form releases and boxed sets that include complete discographies and full-length concerts, the 400-minute running time of this release would completely fill five CDs. (For logistical reasons, it is issued as a six-CD set.) No matter the format, it’s a whole lot of improvised solo piano.