Oscar Peterson: The Master of Swing
They say the pen is mightier than the sword, however, no art form has the ability to shape entire generations and entrance nations in the way that music can. Capable of breaking through the boundaries created by language, age, nationality and religion, music is unique in that it’s something everyone can appreciate. It makes us dance and let go and revel in the beauty of life. No Canadian musician has embodied this philosophy like the master piano player Oscar Peterson. His joyful, swinging style captured the attention of the world for over 60 years.
A prolific jazz pianist and composer, Peterson is arguably the most talented musician that Canada has produced. He was born on August 15th, 1925 in the poor Montreal neighbourhood of St Henri. His parents Daniel and Kathleen Peterson were both Caribbean immigrants. Daniel Peterson was an advocate for musical education who led the family band in concerts in Montreal churches and concert halls. He required each of his 5 children to play both a brass instrument and the piano. Oscar originally played both trumpet and piano, but after a bad bout of tuberculosis focused his energy solely on the piano. He trained as a classical pianist, but his idol was legendary jazz pianist Art Tatum, who helped to steer him more towards swing and bebop. After winning a nationwide contest put on by the CBC he began his own weekly radio show called Fifteen Minutes Piano Rambling. Eventually Oscar began playing for the CBC. Throughout the 40s he rose in popularity in the Canadian music scene and in 1949 he broke into the American scene with a performance at Carnegie Hall.
Despite suffering from arthritis since his teens he had a long, incredibly successful career. He toured throughout the US and Canada as well as internationally. Besides performing, Peterson was a prolific and gifted composer releasing multiple albums a year throughout the fifties. Records such as Night Train, which included the popular “Hymn to Freedom”, and Canadiana Suite saw great success. He won a spectacular eight Grammys, including a lifetime achievement award in 1997. He was inducted into the Canadian Music, Juno Awards and Canadian Jazz and Blues Halls of Fame. Peterson also worked with other jazz legends such as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.
He also acted as an educator, desiring to share his musical passion with others. In 1960, he founded Advanced School of Contemporary Music in Toronto. The school operated for two years before being forced to close due to his heavy performance schedule.
He worked in a variety of settings including as an accompanist, in trios and in quartets, but his most acclaimed work were his performances as a soloist. Peterson’s dexterity, meticulous technique and classical training when translated into jazz, yielded amazing results. He took incredibly difficult songs and made them sound as if he could play them in his sleep. His ability to pull off this easygoing sound when playing such complex songs is a true testament to his talent. However, my favourite part of Oscar Peterson’s playing is the joy with which he did it. It’s obvious that he loved his work. In songs like “C Jam Blues” you can practically hear the smile on his face as his fingers dance across the keyboard with a practiced ease.
Acclaimed by some as the greatest jazz pianist of all time he was incredibly influential and left his mark not only on the Canadian jazz scene, but also on the world stage. He earned himself many names including “the man with four hands” and the “Maharaja of the keyboard”. Peterson passed on December 23rd 2007, in Mississauga, Ontario due to kidney failure. This marked the loss of an incredible human being and a great talent. He was a proud black Canadian and his music has forever shaped our culture and heritage. His story will continue to inspire generations of youth to follow their dreams despite the social and economic confines enforced on them by society, and the echoes of his dancing fingers will be heard for years and years to come.
1. King, Betty Nygaard. “Oscar Peterson.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/oscar-peterson/.
2. “Oscar Peterson.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oscar_Peterson.
3. “Oscar Peterson.” Black History Canada - Oscar Peterson, TD, blackhistorycanada.ca/arts.php?themeid=22&id=3.
4. “Oscar Peterson - A Jazz Sensation.” Library and Archives Canada, Government of Canada, epe.lac-bac.gc.ca/100/206/301/lac-bac/oscar_peterson-ef/www.lac-bac.gc.ca/4/2/m3-2001-e.html.