For every one of us who had traditionally viewed Oscar Peterson as being the embodiment of virtuosity, a great revelation came in the aftermath of the stroke he experienced in the spring of 1993.
At that time, he began employing his left hand more sparingly than he had earlier in his career. For many lifelong Oscar Peterson fans, it became clear during this transition how his sound on the piano was so deeply drawn from his heart, more so than the shock value his impressive dexterity might have previously implied.
I was blessed to be befriended by Oscar in the fall of 1992, when he came to hear the trio led by the late, great master of the bass, Ray Brown, in Toronto. At the time, I was playing piano in Ray’s trio and Jeff Hamilton was the drummer. Oscar was quite supportive of me after hearing us play, and he encouraged a friendship, inviting me to telephone or write him.
What I came to see from getting to know such a highly focused artist as a friend, was a man who cared deeply about his family, friends and loved ones, a strong man who welcomed laughter and at the same time was not in the least way ashamed to cry about things that touched his heart. He showed me a peaceful warrior who was humble to his past masters and heroes, while standing fast in defending his own honor as an artist.
Some years ago, Oscar phoned me at a time during which we hadn’t spoken for a few months. I was of course surprised and delighted to hear from him. “Oscar!” I exclaimed. “How are you?”
“I’m fine,” Oscar replied in a very sedate, low voice. “I have a question to ask you, Benny.”
Immediately sensing the serious nature of his mood, I dropped my animated tone and responded, “Yes, Oscar?” Oscar continued: “Do you have a substance abuse problem, Benny?”
I had heard him quite clearly, so there was no cause for me to ask him to repeat his query. I hesitated for no more than two seconds, I’m sure of it. During the pregnant two seconds, I knew if there’s one thing I owe this man, it’s my honesty. I answered him, “Oscar, I can’t lie to you. I do smoke marijuana.”
Oscar asked, his volume increasing a bit, “Is there anything else?”
I said, “No, that’s all I do. I don’t even drink, but I have smoked for a long time and I was doing it even before I met you.” Oscar followed: “Well, then there’s something I want to ask of you, Benny.”
“Yes, Oscar, of course.”
“I want you to get a plane ticket, and I want you and your lady to come up here to Mississauga [the city in which he made his home, near Toronto], and I want to talk with you.”
I did just that, and Oscar, his wife Kelly and daughter Celine greeted us with cheer, warmth and hugs. Later, Oscar excused us both from the kitchen where the ladies were mingling, and sat down alone with me in his living room, and placed one of his huge hands over mine. “You know,” he said, looking into my eyes paternally and empathetically, “I was playing a nightclub in New York with the trio some years ago, and as I was entering the club, a fellow stopped me and said, ‘C’mon, Oscar, can you lay five dollars on me? You know you’re the one with all the bread.’ I said, ‘No. I can’t do that for you.’ Two weeks later, that man was dead, and do you know who he was, Benny?”
“It was Sonny Clark. Benny, I want you to think of me, think of Ray, think of your parents. You’ve been given a lot, and with this comes responsibility.”
It took me years after that conversation to realize that a musician needs all of his faculties to be functioning on full throttle, to channel music and be attuned to all that is occurring in the moment. It took me more than a while and it cost me many precious moments with remarkable people to realize that I had an addiction, and to commit to never smoke again.
I am grateful that Oscar cared about my life. I didn’t speak with him as often as I might have, had I realized that he was only to be with us for a few remaining years, but I can honestly say that he was a true friend to me, and I know that his love was a great privilege in my life.
I once asked Oscar if he had ever practiced with a metronome. “No,” he answered, “and I suppose that’s why I can’t swing!” He had the sharpest wit.
On another occasion, I asked Oscar what scale I could employ on a particular chord inversion within “If You Only Knew,” an original composition of his. He just looked at me for a very long time, and didn’t speak a word. And now I’m glad he didn’t entertain such a frivolous pursuit as to ask a great master how to spell. If it sounds good, it is good. Beauty is in the ear of the behearer. As Ray Brown said, “One of the only true freedoms we have in this life is choosing what notes to play.”
As to his all-time favorite pianists, his most significant pianistic inspirations, Oscar told me, “Every time I sit down at the piano, I endeavor to pay homage to three pianists, not that I’m always successful. Those three pianists are Mr. Art Tatum, Nat Cole and Henry [Hank] Jones.” Hank Jones, thankfully, is still with us, and, as ever, head and shoulders beyond the rest of us in sophistication, grace and resourcefulness—an inspiration to us all. We are all blessed by our golden opportunity of this present moment, to hear him play in person. Originally Published