CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Oscar Peterson’s Africa Suite Comes to Life in Toronto

John Clayton arranges and conducts the piece's premiere with the help of Benny Green, Christian McBride, Lewis Nash, and an all-star jazz orchestra

John Clayton conducts
John Clayton conducts the Toronto Jazz Orchestra, Benny Green, and Christian McBride in performance of Oscar Peterson’s Africa Suite (photo by Daniel Nawrocki)

The late Oscar Peterson surely would have been proud to see his Africa Suite performed in public for the first time. During a chilly night in February, the stage of Koerner Hall in Toronto was filled with a big band made up of all-star Canadian musicians, conducted by John Clayton and accompanying a piano trio featuring Benny Green, Christian McBride, and Lewis Nash, who shared a long common history with Peterson and with each other. Nash played with Peterson, while Green was a protégé of the legendary pianist; Clayton and McBride were acolytes of Peterson’s longtime bassist Ray Brown, with whom they toured and recorded as SuperBass. In short, it’s impossible to think of more suitable players to bring this ambitious work to life.  All in the family of Oscar.

The evening was organized by Oscar’s widow Kelly Peterson, founder of the Oscar Peterson International Jazz Festival, under the artistic direction of Renee Rosnes. For the premiere of Africa, Peterson and Rosnes worked closely with Clayton, as well as with the noted impresario Mervon Mehta, executive director, performing arts, at the Royal Conservatory of Music. The concert, sold out months in advance, was also seen via live stream on the web by thousands more. However, few people listening to the concert, live or online, could have imagined the long journey it had taken to reach this point.

Peterson started composing material for the suite in the early ’80s and even played a few of the pieces in concert, including “Nigerian Marketplace.” But he never performed the entire suite live, nor did he record it professionally. It existed only in the form of home demos, using not acoustic piano but synthesizers, which enabled him to overdub many parts—from basslines to strings.

“When Oscar composed, he really did not like sitting with staff paper and pencil,” Kelly Peterson explains. “He played whatever he was writing on the piano and would have a copyist transcribe it for lead sheets. With the advent of synthesizers, which he was really getting into at the time he was composing this suite, he had many more sounds at his fingertips. The original composition of the suite was all synthesizer with different sounds and different instrumentation. He would do multitracks: the piano track, the horns, woodwinds, all the percussion, each as an individual track.”

Ms. Peterson believes that her husband wanted to present the entire suite eventually, but his touring schedule and all his other projects got in the way. Plus, it was never clear if he was done with it. “Quite frankly, he may still have had it in his mind that he would add some more pieces,” Kelly Peterson says. “He often said, ‘I’m still working on this suite.’ He probably didn’t feel that it was really completed. In the archives I found a piece that was to be included in the suite. It wasn’t completed. It was just an idea.” Peterson died in 2007 before he could finish it to his satisfaction.

Kelly Peterson and Christian McBride at the premiere of Oscar Peterson’s Africa Suite in Toronto (photo by Dan Nawrocki)

Around 2012, Kelly Peterson started thinking about ways to share the pianist’s compositions and get other artists to play them. The 50th anniversary of his influential Night Train album (recorded for Verve in 1963) was coming up, and she found herself looking through his archives, where she came across the material for the suite. Her initial idea was to ask John Clayton and Jeff Hamilton if the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra would perform it. However, given the sketchy nature of the material, much more work needed to be done. Who better than one of the most accomplished arrangers in jazz—who was also a Ray Brown protégé?

Clayton was unaware of the material’s existence when he was first approached. “[Kelly] said, ‘You know I’ve got these tapes of Oscar playing electric keyboards for some stuff that he was hoping to make into a suite he called Africa. Can I get you these tapes? Would you be interested in checking them out?’” Clayton recalls. “I said, ‘Unheard Oscar Peterson tapes? Yeah!’ She got more and more excited about me listening to them and she said, ‘I’d love to do something with these.’ And we came up with the idea of making it a big presentation. That was the seed of the project.”

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When Clayton finally heard Peterson’s pieces, the difficulty of the assignment hit home; they were far closer to sketches than fully orchestrated compositions. “It was clear in her [Kelly’s] mind that this was a suite, because Oscar told her,” Clayton says. “But by listening—no. In fact, the things I listened to, it was kind of challenging, because I’d hear him on a track playing synthesizer and he’d obviously overdubbed himself with a bassline and then he’d go back and play on top of that at least twice, maybe three times. From there [he hums a vamp], he’d do that and then play on top of that. That was Oscar Peterson blowing on top of a bass pattern, but not a clear melody.”

It was the search for the melody that Clayton found himself immersed in: “I think he would have gotten to that, but at that point he was just experimenting and trying to put stuff together. There was no particular order. Sometimes I would listen to a piece and maybe by the third go-round or chorus, I’d go, ‘Okay, that could be a melody,’ whether he meant for it [to be] or not. I would say, ‘This is the melody—forgive me, Oscar, if you had another idea, but we’re going to call this the melody!’ I didn’t do a lot of cutting and pasting. I really tried to use the complete ideas he presented. There was always space for me to find something and use it in another way, as background or as an introduction.”

Clayton managed to use nearly all of the pieces in some fashion. “We discovered some things that he was messing around with that I think he was in the early stages of doing. With a piece like ‘Night Cry,’ you hear this great clear theme, and then he goes into a variation of ‘God Bless the Child.’ We can’t use that. But bits and pieces and put it all together, and boom, here it is. Of course, there are some pieces that he had already recorded, like ‘Nigerian Marketplace.’ I thought that was just a tune. I didn’t realize that it was part of a suite that he was thinking about.”

John Clayton at the premiere performance of Oscar Peterson’s Africa Suite at Koerner Hall in Toronto (photo by Daniel Nawrocki)

Interestingly, Peterson never visited Africa. “I think the inspiration was that he enjoyed creating a musical portrait of various landscapes,” Ms. Peterson says. “Through his love of photography and his love of world affairs, he was seeing all the images. Movies, news, National Geographic specials … He wanted to create a musical portrait of Africa with a larger focus on South Africa, which grew out of his tremendous sense of human rights.”

Clayton says that he could hear the sounds of Africa in Peterson’s song sketches. “Oh yes, in the harmonies and in the basslines,” he confirms. “He would create a two-bar line that would repeat. There were a couple that he played over and over again, and you could almost hear the drums. Like with ‘The Fallen Warrior.’ He meant that to be part of this suite. And ‘Ellington Looks at Africa.’  I can just imagine this caravan going down the Sahara.”

The suite as envisioned by Clayton naturally had a piano trio as the central focus. Which meant that Green faced perhaps the greatest challenge of all, sitting in what would have been his mentor’s chair. “The greatest challenge of performing Africa was also the most natural thing I encountered in interpreting the music,” he says. “Not to let any self-perceived sense of enormity eclipse my enjoyment of the moment, of the suite itself and of the musicians and audience, both in person and over livestream. It was such a magical coming together, and I wanted to allow myself to enjoy every moment, the rehearsals and the show.”

For the first half of the concert, the trio and orchestra played a set of classic compositions associated with Peterson, including “Here’s That Rainy Day,” “Falling in Love With Love,” and “Wheatland.” The presence of noted Canadian jazz guitarist Reg Schwager further emphasized the connection to Peterson’s legacy, because pickers like Joe Pass and Herb Ellis had been such an essential part of the Peterson sound.

The stirring performance of the Africa Suite closed out the night and, in the hands of the trio and jazz orchestra, conducted expertly by Clayton, it sounded like a fully formed and well-crafted work, even though there had only been two rehearsals. The concert ended with a moving version of “Hymn to Freedom” a song written in 1962 during the Civil Rights Movement, and actually composed in the studio during the recording of the Night Train. After Harriette Hamilton’s lyrics were added to the composition, Martin Luther King, Jr. adopted the song as an unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights movement. With those final notes, the concert had no encore, just curtain call after curtain call, in part because all of the material had been played and in part because the ending felt perfect as it was.

Benny Green performing Oscar Peterson’s Africa Suite at Koerner Hall in Toronto (photo by Daniel Nawrocki)

Green felt the good vibes and love that pervaded the evening. “What I enjoyed most about performing Africa was the collective effort of everyone involved,” he said. “The combined positive intentions made for such a supportive experience for me. The love was founded in Oscar’s writing and in his heartfelt thematic salutes to Nelson Mandela and to the civil rights movement, as well as in Kelly Peterson and Mervon Mehta’s idea to present this very special concert. Renee Rosnes, John Clayton, Reg Schwager, Christian McBride, and Lewis Nash, along with the musicians who comprised this edition of the Oscar Peterson Jazz Festival Orchestra, all made me feel like I was the right cat to be there.”

Ms. Peterson recorded the concert and is contemplating releasing it as an album.  She’s also looking at other opportunities to present the work at festivals and performing arts centers all over the world.