Oscar Peterson: The Jazz Great

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Oscar Peterson: The Jazz Great

Oscar Peterson was a man with a humble beginning which emerged and changed the world of jazz forever. At a young age, he was introduced to music by his father. The older Peterson taught his son how to play the keys and set him on the path to a career in music. Peterson found his start in the music industry playing boogie-woogie, but he would soon make his mark in the realm of jazz. He proved to be the versatile pianist, equally skilled performing alone or with other musicians. The man from Canada eventually won admiration and praise, making him one of the greatest figures in jazz music.

At present, there are many artists and musicians who have gained fame in such a short amount of time. Some are famous for their talent while most attract attention for the wrong reasons. Unfortunately, fame had become the yardstick for talent and skill. There are also those musicians who are not as well-known as others but have made immense contributions to music. They may not be household names, but they are names which are crucial and respected in music history. One of those musicians is Oscar Peterson, a notable jazz virtuoso whose musical career spanned decades.

Oscar Peterson is a man of undeniable talent and skill whose legacy in jazz continues to inspire others. Oscar Emmanuel Peterson was born on August 15, 1925 at the district of St. Henri in Montreal, Canada (Severo, 2007). Daniel and Olivia Peterson had five children; he was the fourth. The other Peterson children were Fred, Daisy, Charles and May (“Bio,” n. d. ). Daniel Peterson was responsible for collective musical interest of his family; the patriarch was a self-taught piano player who in turn shared his talent to his children.

Oscar’s piano training continued under her sister Daisy, who became an accomplished piano instructor (McClellan, 2004). Both Daisy and Oscar trained under Paul de Marky, a Hungarian pianist who studied under a student of Franz Liszt. When Peterson was a teenager, his father introduced him to the music of Art Tatum. He became overawed by what he heard that he refused to play the piano for two months (Severo, 2007). He was also influenced James P. Johnson, Teddy Williams and Nat King Cole (“Bio,” n. d. ). Peterson’s musical journey continued in high school.

He became part of the Montreal High School Victory Serenaders (“Bio,” n. d. ). He was allowed to play the piano at lunch time and he became popular with the girls as a result. When Peterson was 14 years old, Daisy encouraged him to join an amateur contest of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) which he eventually won. His victory gave him more opportunities: he had a weekly exposure in a radio show called Fifteen Minutes’ Piano Rambling and had performed in another CBC program entitled The Happy Gang.

Peterson became too preoccupied with his piano playing that he began to neglect his studies. He was forced to leave school, despite his father’s disapproval (“Bio,” n. d. ). Soon after, he became the only African-American member of the Johnny Holmes Orchestra (Severo, 2007). Peterson’s musical career officially started at 20 years of age. In 1945, Peterson signed a recording deal with RCA Victor in Canada (McClellan, 2004). He performed as part of a trio in the Alberta Lounge in Montreal, where seasoned musicians such as Ray Brown and Coleman Hawkins saw him.

Peterson was later persuaded by Count Basie and Jimmi Lunceford to relocate in the United States, but he was hesitant at first. He was finally convinced to move when Norman Granz asked him to perform at Carnegie Hall with two more musicians for a Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) show. Peterson’s career in music spanned several decades. He suffered from stroke in 1993, which undermined the movement of his left hand (Severo, 2007). However, he did not let this hinder him from performing. He even recorded another album when he had learned how to better utilize his right hand.

With regards to his personal life, CBC maintained that Peterson had four marriages. He had seven children from the first, third and fourth marriages: Lyn, Sharon, Gay, Oscar Jr. , Norman and Joel. On December 23, 2007, the great jazz pianist passed away due to kidney failure. He was 82 years old (Severo, 2007). There are several reasons why Oscar Peterson was influential in the world of jazz. First, he was a very versatile musician. He began his professional career with boogie-woogie (McClellan, 2004). In 1942, he was referred to as the “Brown Bomber of Boogie-Woogie” in his country (Severo, 2007, p.

2). Unfortunately, this recognition served as a setback for Peterson. Due to his association to the dance style, he was initially not taken seriously as a jazz musician. It was not until Granz encouraged him to veer away from the style that he gained credibility in the jazz industry. In addition, Peterson had the talent to fuse different styles in while retaining his originality. According to Yanow (2005), Peterson has “always fit into both swing and bop settings while sounding like himself” (p. 124). Peterson’s versatility as a musician was also evident in his collaborations.

He displayed remarkable talent and skill regardless if he performed alone, or as part of a duo or group. When Peterson began recording with Granz, he had his first hit with a rendition of “Tenderly” (Yanow, 2005). In some of his records, he performed with Ray Brown on bass. However, as stated by Severo (2007), Peterson much preferred to be part of a trio. In 1952, he and Brown formed a trio with guitarist Barney Kessel. Kessel was later replaced by Herb Ellis. The collaboration between Peterson, Brown and Ellis lasted from 1953 to 1958 (Yanow, 2005).

This trio proved to be a musically challenging one; the members complemented each other with elaborate arrangements. During a JATP performance in September 1953, the trio enthralled with their rendition of “Lollobrigida” (McClellan, 2004). They gave an unforgettable up-tempo performance and made a bigger impact than those groups with drummers. They also showed remarkable musicianship and skill in their performance of Rogers and Osborne’s “Pompton Turnpike. ” Unfortunately, Ellis left the group in 1958 and Ed Thigpen became his replacement (Yanow, 2005).

The trio which consisted of Peterson, Brown and Thigpen recorded several albums in 1961 which were compiled into what is known as the London House Sessions (Kirchner, 2005). This trio disbanded in 1965 (Yanow, 2005). Peterson displayed his distinct piano playing skills as a soloist on several occasions. In the 1950s, he was featured on records along with notable musicians of swing and bop (Yanow, 2005). He had several solo records, as well as duet albums with trumpet players and Count Basie (Kirchner, 2005).

Peterson became critically acclaimed for his renditions of other people’s compositions, but he soon showed that he was a capable composer as well (Severo, 2005). To play his compositions, he sometimes used an electric piano (Yanow, 2005). His composition “The Canadiana Suite,” a tribute to his homeland, was recorded in 1964 and became his most famous work (Severo, 2007). His other compositions include “African Suite” and “A Royal Wedding Suite;” the latter was written specifically for the wedding of Lady Diana Spencer and Prince Charles (Severo, 2007).

However, the main reason why Peterson is widely recognized and admired in the genre of jazz is because of his piano playing technique. His unique technique earned him the respect of fellow jazz superstars. Duke Ellington called Peterson “the maharajah of the keyboard” (Severo, 2007, p. 1). Count Basie was said to have referred to Peterson as the one who “plays the best ivory box I’ve ever heard” (Severo, 2007, p. 1). Peterson developed his distinct skill at a young age; it was under de Marky’s guidance where the latter learned “technique and speedy fingers” (“Bio,” n. d. ).

In the 1940s, his Peterson’s technique reflected the influence of Art Tatum (Yanow, 2005). He eventually became one of the few jazz pianists to be compared with Tatum’s tremendous talent. Dobbins noted the Peterson “is often compared to Art Tatum, with whom he shares a unique gift for inspiring awe from musicians, critics, and listeners alike” (as cited in McClellan, 2004, p. 128). Nonetheless, Peterson did not limit himself to a specific style or technique. Later on, he showcased the influence of Milt Buckner, who created the “locked-hands” or block chord approach (McClellan, 2004, p. 128).

Why is Oscar Peterson a revered name in jazz? He was the consummate jazz pianist. It does not matter if he performed solo or as a part of a duo or trio; his skill and technique remained regardless of format. He was equally as ease with making exceptional music whether it was his own composition or a rendition of someone else’s masterpiece. In addition, he had developed a technique which he borrowed from other artists and turned it into his own. Oscar Peterson is a versatile pianist with an outstanding legacy in jazz. References “Bio. ” (n. d. ).

Oscar Peterson Web Site. Retrieved March 17, 2009 from http://www. oscarpeterson. com/bio/ Kirchner, B. (2005). The Oxford Companion to Jazz. New York: Oxford University Press. McClellan, L. (2004). The Later Swing Era, 1942 to 1955. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Publishing Group. Severo, R. (2007). Oscar Peterson, 82, jazz’s piano virtuoso, dies. The New York Times. Retrieved March 17, 2009, from http://www. nytimes. com/2007/12/25/arts/25peterson. html? pagewanted=1&_r=1 Yanow, S. (2005). Jazz: A Regional Exploration. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Publishing Group.


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  • University/College: University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 17 October 2016

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