Preston Simmons (2nd place winner, $2500)
Piano Hands – Melodies of Diversity

Auburn Drive High School, East Preston, Nova Scotia


Throughout Canadian history, black Canadians have played a role in defining Canada's diverse cultural heritage through various achievements and contributions to society. They have accomplished this in many ways. Some have done this through medicine, art and literature, to name a few. One individual who has captured my attention did this through the sweet sound of music, which pierced the prejudice that hindered society in music for years. That person is the "Maharaja of the Keyboard," Oscar Peterson.

Oscar Peterson was an outstanding musician who innovated the way people see music today. He was born on August 15, 1925, in a small town in Quebec called St. Henri. When Oscar was just a little boy, his father insisted that he and his siblings learn to play musical instruments. He started out by playing trumpet. However, when he was five years of age, a bout with tuberculosis prohibited him from playing trumpet again. This may have caused many to give up, but instead of giving up, under the tutelage of his sister Daisy, he started playing the piano. Very quickly, Oscar's talent surpassed the home teaching ability of his sister, so he was sent to the famous Hungarian classical pianist Paul deMarkey. Under the guidance of Paul deMarkey, Oscar Peterson became a master of the piano.

At the age of 14, Oscar Peterson won a national music competition. He subsequently went on to become a full time pianist. He played at hotels, music halls and hosted his own weekly radio show, "15 Minutes Piano Rambling," and became a regular on the CBC broadcast "The Happy Gang." Oscar Peterson quickly became famous in Canada, although his influence did not reach mainstream America until 1949 when he performed at Carnegie Hall in New York.

In the 1950's Oscar Peterson began to record with bassist Ray Brown. They became well known for their duos, creating one of the longest lasting jazz relationships ever, lasting over 20 years. Oscar innovated the way jazz trios worked. He started to work with musicians of different ethnic backgrounds, starting with Ray Brown, who is black, and Herb Ellis, who is white. Multicultural trios were not a common occurrence at this time. By having ethnically diverse trios, he transcended the prejudices to bring everyone's focus on music and to overlook the colour of people's skin.He did it again in 1974 when he formed a quartet with Sicilian American guitarist Joe Pass, Norwegian bassist Neils Henning Orsted Pedersen, and British drummer Martin Drew. The quartet went on to tour the world.

In addition to all of this, Oscar Peterson founded and taught at the Advanced School of Contemporary Music in Toronto, but his heavy touring schedule forced the school to shut down. Later on when his touring slowed down, he taught jazz at York University.

I distinctly remember when I first heard about Oscar Peterson. I was 14 years old. my dad was listening to some of his old CD's. and there was a recording of a song called "Canadiana Suite." It was one of Oscar Peterson's most famous songs. It was written about his home town of St. Henri, Quebec. My dad, being a musician and having grown up in a black community and studying jazz music at a predominantly white university, knew the value of Oscar Peterson's works. During his studies, musicians like Oscar Peterson gave him the strength to push through the colour barriers himself. I respected his work ethic and adopted it as my own.

Over his career, Oscar Peterson composed many songs, published over two hundred recordings, won eight Grammy's, including a Lifetime Achievement Grammy, received the Order of Canada, and many other awards and honours. Also, in 2005, he became the first living person other than a reigning monarch to have a commemorative stamp in Canada. Even after a stroke in 1993 that debilitated his left hand, his determination to continue recording and performing once again prevailed. In two years, he had recovered and continued his worldwide concert appearance schedule.

Oscar Peterson passed away on December 23, 2007, of kidney failure. Of all of his accomplishments, I can't help but think of the young black boy from St. Henri, Quebec overcoming obstacles and breaking colour barriers. It makes me realize that I, a young black boy from East Preston, Nova Scotia, a trumpet and piano player myself, have the potential and ability to accomplish great things.


"Biography." Oscar Peterson website. Universal Music Canada. (opens external website in new window) (last accessed Jan 2015)

"Oscar Peterson Biography.",_Oscar/Biography (opens external website in new window) (last accessed Jan 2015)

"Arts & Culture: Oscar Peterson." Historica Canada: Black History Canada. (opens external website in new window) (last accessed Jan 2015)