Oscar Peterson, acknowledged as one of the most significant and beloved jazz pianists of all time, died Dec. 23 at age 82 in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada. The reported cause was kidney failure. Sources close to Peterson said that his health had been “going downhill” for some time.
During his seven-decade career, Peterson played with many of the iconic names in jazz, including Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Roy Eldridge, Nat “King” Cole, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington.
Peterson’s impressive collection of accolades include a Grammy award for Lifetime Achievement (1997) and induction into the International Jazz Hall of Fame. Peterson was frequently invited to perform for various luminaries, including the British Queen and President Richard Nixon.
Born Aug. 15, 1925, near Montreal, Peterson’s love of music was passed down from his father Daniel, a railway porter and self-taught musician. Peterson learned to play trumpet and piano at a young age, but after a bout with tuberculosis had to concentrate on the latter.
He became a teen sensation in his native Canada, playing in dance bands and recording in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
As the only black member of a dance band, he was frequently subjected to the racism of the day. Peterson spent a great deal of his life acting as a spokesman for minority rights, drawing on his experiences growing up St. Antoine district of Montreal. Peterson called Canada home throughout his entire life.
He quickly made a name for himself as a jazz virtuoso, often compared to piano great Art Tatum, his childhood idol, for his speed and technical skill. He was also influenced by Nat “King” Cole.
International exposure came in 1948 when Norman Granz, producer of Jazz at the Philharmonic, heard Peterson on Montreal radio and later invited the 24-year-old to New York to play as a surprise guest at Carnegie Hall. After the performance, the young talent joined the troupe and toured North America with them for two years.
Peterson, whose career was managed by Granz for over 30 years, formed a trio in 1951 with Ray Brown on bass and Charlie Smith on drums and continued playing with the prestigious group.
His most famous threesome, from 1953 to 1958, was with guitarist Herb Ellis and bassist Ray Brown, who were often cited as one of the world’s finest jazz combos. Ellis left the Peterson trio in 1958 and was replaced by drummer Ed Thigpen. That trio lasted for seven years.
Peterson suffered a stroke in 1993 that weakened his left hand, but within a year he was back on tour, recording “Side By Side” with Itzhak Perlman. As he grew older, Peterson kept playing and touring, despite worsening arthritis and difficulties walking.
“A jazz player is an instant composer,” Peterson once said in a CBC interview, while conceding jazz did not have the mass appeal of other musical genres. “You have to think about it, it’s an intellectual form,” he said.
Marian McPartland Remembers Oscar Peterson
“I first met Oscar in the ’40s when Jimmy [McPartland] and I opened for him at the Colonial Tavern in Toronto. From that point on we became such goods friends and he was always wonderful to me and I have always felt very close to him. He has been a guest on Piano Jazz at least three times and the last time he came was with his wife and daughter and I asked if he needed a bassist and he said, ‘I don’t need a bass player.’
“I played on his tribute concert at Carnegie Hall earlier this year and performed ‘Tenderly,’ which was always my favorite piece of his. His playing was magnificent and always wonderfully swinging. He was the finest technician that I have seen.”