By Soli Nallaseth
Born in Montreal to West Indian immigrants, Peterson’s exposure to heritage jazz culture began in his neighbourhood of Little Burgundy, where he took up jazz trumpet and piano at a very young age, but was forced to focus his attention on piano from the age of seven after a bout of tuberculosis. Thanks to his teacher, Paul de Marky, a descendant of Liszt’s school of teaching, and his own relentless insistence on practising scales and etudes, Peterson rapidly built a virtuosic technique so extraordinary that he commanded the respect of top professionals even as a young boy.
It is hardly a surprise that his successes began when he was just a teenager. Aged fourteen, Peterson won a national competition organised by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. This victory garnered him so much early attention that he was able to immediately drop out of the High School of Montreal and their band (where he had been able to perform alongside trumpeter Maynard Ferguson) and start pursuing his career as a professional pianist. He secured a job in a weekly radio show, was a member of the Johnny Holmes Orchestra and performed frequently at hotels and music halls. He got his first ensemble record aged just twenty, recording with a trio for Victor Records.
It was through one of his early local broadcasts that Peterson developed one of the most important personal and professional relationships of his life, with his manager Norman Granz, who heard Peterson on the radio and was so impressed that he redirected his airport-bound taxi to go and meet him in person. For the vast majority of Peterson’s career, Granz remained not just his manager and a professionally astute ally, but also a close personal friend, who Peterson often praised for standing up for black musicians in the segregationist states of the south of America during the 50s and 60s. In “Music in the Key of Oscar”, a documentary made about Peterson’s life, Peterson recalls how Norman stood up to a gun-toting southern policeman, who wanted to stop the trio from using a “white-only” taxi, and commends him for his actions.
It was clear that Peterson had an extraordinary gift for collaborating with other musicians, the most important being double bassist Ray Brown, who Peterson worked with in a duo, a trio with guitarist Barnie Kessel, and a trio with Herb Ellis for five years, which Peterson described as his “most stimulating” ensemble. In fact, Peterson and Brown thought so highly of Ellis that when he departed in 1958 they chose to replace him with drummer Ed Thigpen, because they felt that no guitarist could compare to Ellis. Brown and Thigpen would go on to work with Peterson on his most famous and successful album, “Night Train”, and also “Canadiana Suite”.
It was touring as “The Oscar Peterson Trio” that he experienced the most success, including the release of the aforementioned “Night Train”, and his other most popular album, “We Get Requests”, in which the influences of his two main inspirations, Nat King Cole and Teddy Wilson, could not be more evident, as Peterson adds his own twist of twinkling expression and remarkable virtuosity to old jazz standards and classics. “The Girl from Ipanema”, in particular, performed by him in his own arrangement, is an extraordinary highlight of this album. He went on to collaborate with many of the greatest jazz musicians of the 20th century, including Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Irving Ashby and Herbie Hancock.
In his lifetime, Peterson performed thousands of concerts across the world, released more than two hundred recordings and won eight Grammy awards earning him the titles of “Maharaja of the Keyboard”, bestowed onto him by the great Duke Ellington, and “the King of Inside Swing”, a fond nickname for him in the jazz community.
He is one of the timeless cornerstones of his industry, an unsurpassably expressive and gifted titan of the keyboard, and a diligent role model to all.