Book Review: Oscar Peterson by Jack Batten

The Man and His Jazz

Jack Batten tells in his biography of Oscar Peterson that when Peterson performed with Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic on September 18, 1949 at New York City’s Carnegie Hall, the pianist walked on stage a rookie but left the audience applauding as though he was a star warranting his name on a bill that also featured Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, and Buddy Rich. In Batten’s book “Oscar Peterson: The Man and his Jazz,” Peterson’s story is a rags to riches tale sans the theatrics which accompany many narrations in this ilk. In fact, Batten’s account makes it seem as if Peterson never felt poor growing up in Montreal’s community of St. Henri because music filled his and his sibling’s lives.

Batten begins Peterson’s biography at Carnegie Hall, the benchmark moment when Peterson makes the transition from being a local musician playing at the lounge at the Alberta Hotel to moving into mainstream music with the likes of Duke Ellington, Bing Crosby, and Benny Goodman. From there, Batten goes back in time to Peterson’s parents, both from the Caribbean Islands and migrated to Montreal, Canada where Peterson’s father found work as a porter for the Canadian Pacific Railway. Peterson’s background is steep in working class ethics and religious morals as the family attended Sunday masses at the Union United Church.

Peterson’s father encouraged his children to play the piano and leased an upright piano for them to play. Peterson describes his father as being very tough and strict, and his mother as being attentive to her children’s needs and always one to offer practical advice. The family unit was Peterson’s foundation as he embarked on a quest to play the piano professionally.

Batten reviews Peterson’s short list of instructors and musicians whom he performed live with when he first started out. Batten brings to light a corner in Montreal flanked by two active jazz clubs that Peterson frequented. Climbing up one rung at a time, Peterson made his way into JATP without much soliciting or self-promotion. Those were the days when talent was recognized and duly rewarded.

Batten is meticulous about delving into the atmosphere that was emerging while Peterson’s music was rising. He speaks about the bebop movement spearheaded by Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, and improvised embellishments that stimulated popular standards engineering by the likes of Django Reinhardt and John Lewis.

Batten additionally lists Peterson’s accomplishments. As a recording artist, he won eight Grammy’s for Best Jazz Performance. As a Canadian citizen, he held several stately positions as well as receiving honorary degrees from Canadian universities. Batten shows that Peterson’s accomplishments went beyond being a jazz artist and became playing a pivotal role in shaping the global society’s impression of jazz music.

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Susan Frances