Born: August 15, 1925 | Died: December 23, 2007 Primary Instrument: Piano
One of the most admired pianists in jazz, Oscar Peterson has rightfully claimed the same sort of status as earlier greats such as James P. Johnson, Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Fats Waller, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, and Bill Evans. Possibly the most successful artist produced by Canada, he appeared on well over 200 albums spanning six decades and won numerous awards, including eight Grammys. During his career he performed and recorded with, among others, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, and Charlie Parker. He was beyond doubt an authentic jazz piano virtuoso, with a remarkable and prolific legacy of recordings and performances.
Oscar Emmanuel Peterson, CC, CQ, O.Ont was born on August 15, 1925 in Montreal, Quebec.He began learning trumpet and piano from his father at the age of five, but by the age of seven, after a bout of tuberculosis, he concentrated on the piano. Some of the artists who influenced Peterson during the early years were Teddy Wilson, Nat King Cole, James P. Johnson and the legendary Art Tatum, to whom many have tried to compare Peterson in later years. In fact, one of his first exposures to the musical talents of Tatum came early in his teen years when his father played a Tatum record to him and Peterson was so intimidated by what he heard that he did not touch the piano for over a week.
Peterson has also credited his sister Daisy, a noted piano teacher in Montreal who also taught several other noted Canadian jazz musicians, with being an important teacher and influence on his career.
He soon developed a reputation as a technically brilliant and melodically inventive jazz pianist, and became a regular on Canadian radio. His United States introduction was at Carnegie Hall, New York City in 1949 by Norman Granz; owing to union restrictions his appearance could not be billed.
An important step in his career was joining impresario Norman Granz's labels (especially Verve records) and Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic package. Granz discovered Peterson in a peculiar manner: as the impresario was being taken to the Montreal airport by cab, the radio was playing a live broadcast of Peterson at a local night club. He was so smitten by what he heard that he ordered the driver to take him to the club so he could meet the pianist. So was born a lasting relationship, and Granz remained Peterson's manager for most of the latter's career. Through Granz's Jazz at the Philarmonic he was able to play with the major jazz artists of the time: some of his musical associates have included Ray Brown, Ben Webster, Milt Jackson, Herb Ellis, Barney Kessel, Ed Thigpen, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, Louis Armstrong, Stéphane Grappelli, Ella Fitzgerald, Clark Terry, Joe Pass, Count Basie, and Stan Getz.
Some cognoscenti assert that Peterson's best recordings were made for the MPS label in the late '60s and early '70s. For some years subsequently he recorded for Granz's Pablo Records after the label was founded in 1973 and in more recent years for the Telarc label.
In 1993, Peterson suffered a serious stroke that weakened his left side and sidelined him for two years. However he has overcome this setback and is today still working on a limited basis. In 1997 he received a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement and an International Jazz Hall of Fame Award, proof that Oscar Peterson is still regarded as one of the greatest jazz musicians ever to play.
In 2003, Peterson recorded a DVD A Night in Vienna for the Verve label, which clearly shows that Peterson's age limits his technical powers. Even so, his playing has lost but little of its charm, and he still tours the US and Europe, though maximally one month a year, with a couple of days rest between concerts to recover his strength. His accompaniment consists of Ulf Wakenius (guitar), David Young (bass) and Alvin Queen (drums), all leaders of their own groups.
His work has earned him seven Grammy awards over the years and he was elected to the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1978. He also belongs to the Juno Awards Hall of Fame and the Canadian Jazz and Blues Hall of Fame.
He was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1972, and promoted to Companion, its highest rank, in 1984. He is also a member of the Order of Ontario, a Chevalier of the National Order of Quebec, and an officer of the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
He has received the Roy Thomson Award, a Toronto Arts Award for lifetime achievement, the Governor General's Performing Arts Award, the Glenn Gould Prize, the award of the International Society for Performing Artists, the Loyola Medal of Concordia University, the Praemium Imperiale World Art Award, the UNESCO Music Prize, and the Toronto Musicians' Association Musician of the Year award.
In 1999, Concordia University in Montreal renamed their Loyola-campus concert hall Oscar Peterson Concert Hall in his honor.
From 1991 to 1994 he was chancellor of York University in Toronto.
In 2004 the City of Toronto named the courtyard of the Toronto-Dominion Centre Oscar Peterson Square.
On August 15, 2005 Peterson celebrated his 80th birthday at the HMV flagship store in Toronto. A crowd of about 200 gathered to celebrate with him there. Diana Krall sang happy birthday to him and also performed a vocal version of one of Peterson's songs When Summer Comes. The lyrics for this version were written by Elvis Costello, Krall's husband. Canada Post unveiled a commemorative postage stamp in his honor. This marked the first time that a Canadian postage stamp was created celebrating an individual who was still alive other than members of the British Royal Family. The event was covered by a live radio broadcast by Toronto jazz station, jazz.fm.
Oscar Peterson, who sat atop the world of jazz piano for decades with his driving two-handed swing, technical wizardry and rapid-fire solos, died on Dec. 23, 2007, he was 82.