Jazz is hard to define. It is a genre that transcends boundaries; it is a living, breathing expression of the history and culture that never settles neatly into a box. Critic Whitney Balliett is quoted as calling it "the sound of surprise." Many artists have left an impression in the jazz community but one man stands above all for his raw skill, unwavering work ethic, and ability to adapt: Oscar Peterson. Often hailed as the greatest jazz pianist of all time, Oscar held an impressive career that overcame racism, failing health, and fierce competition. This is the life of Oscar Peterson and his rise to international fame.
Early Life of Oscar Peterson
Oscar Emmanuel Peterson was born August 15th, 1925 in Montréal, Québec, Canada, as the second youngest child of five. His parents were immigrants from the West Indies; his mother worked as a domestic worker, and his father Daniel worked as both a porter for the Canadian Pacific Railway and as a self-taught amateur musician, playing organ, trumpet, and piano. Peterson grew up in Little Burgundy in Montréal, a predominantly black neighborhood with a healthy jazz scene. His father was a strict disciplinarian and had high expectations for his children, insisting they all learn to play piano and a brass instrument, with the older children teaching the younger.
Oscar began playing both trumpet and piano when he was five. Originally, Oscar wanted to focus exclusively on trumpet but continued to play piano at his father's insistence. His older brother Fred was a talented player and the piano almost came naturally to him. He was quick to learn but a horribly impatient teacher. Sister Daisy would take over his teaching responsibilities to their siblings allowing Fred to venture into popular music like jazz. Fred's jazz playing would serve as Oscar's first taste of the genre that would define his career and spark his love for the piano.
Unfortunately for the Petersons, tragedy would strike when Fred, Oscar, and Daisy contracted tuberculosis. While Oscar and Daisy would overcome the disease, the reaper would slip past them and take Fred's life at the age of 15. After recovery, Oscar, aged 8, was forced to switch exclusively to piano due to his limited lung capacity preventing him from playing brass.
His older sister, Daisy, was Oscar's first teacher and would build a career as a respected piano teacher for herself. She would have pupils like Oliver Jones, Joe Sealy, and Reg Wilson study under her over the years. Later in life Oscar would reflect on his own and his siblings' early exposure to music. "There's a good way and a bad way to expose children to music. If they're exposed in the wrong way, it can turn them against it. Fortunately, we were introduced to it in a good way and we all learned to play."
Originally, Oscar wanted to focus exclusively on trumpet but continued to play piano at his father's insistence
Oscar had a natural talent for music, something that his family acknowledged early in his life. In one instance when Oscar was 11, Daniel instructed him and Daisy to learn a complicated piano concerto while Daniel was away. Daisy would practice the concerto day and night, and Oscar would casually read comic books. When Daniel returned, Daisy was a nervous mess as she made mistakes while Oscar played without missing a note like it was a casual Sunday stroll through the park.
Around the time Oscar was 12, he would hear his first real jazz pianist when a West Indian sailor dropped by the Peterson home to visit. Daniel offered the sailor the chance to play, and what followed was a few choruses of a jazz tune. This captured Oscar's imagination, and he vowed to figure out how to play the tune like the sailor did, but better. Around this time Oscar would become the student of Louis Hooper, a classically trained Canadian pianist and veteran of the Harlem jazz scene.
Starting in early 1937, every Thursday at 4 p.m. Hooper would arrive at the Peterson home and teach Oscar piano. They'd start with exercises and then play a short classical piece chosen by Oscar. After Oscar finished the piece, Hooper would play the same thing in his own style, and then tell Oscar what he thought the composer might have had in mind when composing. For example, one afternoon after playing a composition by Fran Liszt, Hooper told Oscar, "Liszt must have been feeling his own strength at this point because as we play it, we can almost feel the transmission of power from his music to us."
This was an important moment for Oscar, helping him understand that music wasn't just a matter of notes but an expression of emotions brought to life. After a few weeks of lessons, Oscar mustered the courage to bring up jazz to Hooper. Hooper decided that he would play a jazz tune and then Oscar could play one of his own. While Hooper chose a soft, gentle ballad, Oscar played a lively and fast tune, pouring himself into the music and hitting the keys with force, and when he was done all Hooper said was "Interesting, Oscar. Very interesting."
They continued their dynamic for a few more Thursdays, Hooper talking to Oscar about jazz, providing him with hints on how to adjust his approach and letting the young Oscar discover his own style instead of attempting to mold it. Rather abruptly, Hooper would tell Daniel that he could no longer teach Oscar, for he had "taken him as far as he could." In an unpublished autobiography by Hooper, he explained his decision in more detail: "I selected only such musical pieces that would challenge to the utmost his musicianship. As I observed the results through biweekly visits to his home, I was satisfied that this practice was proving satisfactory. It freed Oscar to forge his own illustrious way."
... music wasn't just a matter of notes but an expression of emotions brought to life
Oscar held a lifelong debt to Lou Hooper, "He brought into my life a newfound understanding of how to best interpret a musical selection. What he also made me much more aware of was the delicacy and beauty of the piano itself." A year after Hooper left, 13-year-old Daisy would take Oscar along with her the day she tried out for a place at Conservatoire de musique du Québec à Québec. She persuaded Oscar to audition as well. At first he stumbled through a classical piece he was asked to play but he would impress the judges when he performed a piece of George Gershwin jazz that demonstrated his perfect pitch. Oscar was admitted to the Conservatoire de musique while his sister was turned away. However, his time there would be brief. He dropped out after a few weeks when no teacher made an impression on him.
At the age of 15, he studied with Paul de Marky, a Hungarian concert pianist trained in the 19th-century tradition of Franz Liszt. Since Oscar was attracted to the music and style of Liszt, the two were a natural pair. Immediately, Oscar was pleased that de Marky made a connection between himself and Liszt. Another thing that Oscar liked was that de Marky had a firm understanding of jazz and would let the lesson end with Oscar demonstrating his "jazz thing."
De Marky helped Oscar in the physical training he needed to translate his heart into the music by creating incredibly difficult exercises that emphasized swift and clear note-striking. The goal was to train Oscar to place his hands in the correct positions to move around the keyboard with speed and efficiency. Oscar reflected on his training with de Marky later in life: "He showed me the capacity for portraying on the piano every possible emotion from utter joy to abysmal sadness." History would once again repeat itself as one day de Marky told Oscar that he had taken him as far as he could and ended lessons. De Marky would be the last of Oscar's formal teachers, and from this point forward Oscar would be sailing on his own.
Seeing Oscar's skills as an artist develop, his sister Daisy asked him to go for a walk. She didn't tell him where they were going but eventually they arrived at CBM, the local CBC station in downtown Montréal. She'd brought him there to encourage him to enter an amateur contest sponsored by famous radio personality Ken Soble, something akin to American Idol in modern days. Artists would compete on air, and listeners would vote to decide the winner.
Oscar was nervous, but the moment he started playing, his nerves settled. Soble knew in an instant that Oscar was going to be a prime contestant. Over the next few weeks, Oscar would compete and win. The victory sent him to Toronto, where the contest finals would take place. The competition was much fiercer here, with many professionals in the running but he remained confident in his ability. His performance was notable not just for his playing style, but for his age and race; being a young black performer was rare. Oscar easily won the contest, netting him a check for $250, and serving as his first paycheck from jazz.
Around this time, Oscar began playing a baby grand piano in the foyer of Montréal High around noon each day. Here he would bang out boogie-woogie tunes that had the kids flock around him in droves. He would meet trumpet player Maynard Ferguson and together they would perform in a dance band led by Maynard's brother, Percy. During this time as a fledgling young artist, Oscar recalls sneaking downstairs while his parents slept to listen to jazz on the radio. "I put my ear right to the speaker and listen to Duke (Ellington) and (Count) Basie and Artie Shaw. The volume would be way way down low so I wouldn't wake my parents ... and I'd be ingesting all these wonderful music."
Oscar's work would begin to see the influences of his idol Art Tatum, along with artists like Nat King and Teddy Wilson. His growing reputation in the '40s made him something of a celebrity in Montréal's music scene, and he dropped out of high school at 17 to become the featured soloist in the Johnny Holmes Orchestra from 1943 to 1947. Notable for his young age and the fact that Holmes' band was predominantly white, Oscar was quickly climbing to the top.
In the fall of 1943, after about a year of earning reliable money from his work with Holmes, Oscar talked to his dad about his future in music and dropping out of school. His father told him, "The only condition is that you don't turn into just any ordinary piano player, you have to promise to be the best." It was a promise that Peterson would deliver on throughout his career.
Oscar recalls sneaking downstairs while his parents slept to listen to jazz on the radio
Holmes would help Oscar refine his style and give Oscar private sessions at no charge, teaching him how to structure a jazz solo, how to slow down to work with a ballad, how to play nicely with other members of the band, and other important lessons for being a professional musician. Holmes would also get Oscar interested in composing his own pieces. Oscar would thrive in the band and during his time with Holmes, a press release appeared from the public relations department of CPR on Oscar and his family. Gene Lees in the book Between the Tracks notes it as a curious document that reflects the writer's unease with the subject and the racial bias of the time. However, it does provide an interesting description of Oscar.
The press release describes Oscar as "Built like a piano himself, genial, mahogany-stained Oscar is close to six feet tall and measures about four octaves wide at the shoulders. His broad smile displays a set of ivories fit to make the ivories on any piano keyboard turn yellow with envy, and it reflects too, the immense personal pleasure and satisfaction he derives from his 'work'."
At some point in this period of his life, Oscar was diagnosed with chronic arthritis, an affliction that would follow him the rest of his life. While performing with Holmes, Oscar began hanging out at "the corner," where Mountain Street and St. Antoine met. The Rockhead's Paradise and Café St. Michel sat in close proximity and was the jazz hotspot of Montréal. Oscar soaked in the music, and eventually was invited inside the clubs to jam with the musicians. Steep Wade, a bebop player, took Oscar under his wing and helped further refine his style. Here Oscar would soak in jazz from some of the masters, both local and American afterhours.
Oscar Peterson's Professional Recording Career
March 1945 marked the first of Oscar's recordings for RCA Victor, notable for the singles I Got Rhythmand The Sheik of Araby. These singles were hits and revealed Oscar's natural talent for the boogie-woogie and extraordinary playing technique that would characterize his work and evolve throughout his career. His boogie-woogie work would earn him the nickname "the brown bomber of boogie-woogie." Between 1945 and 1949, Oscar would make 16 78s for RCA Victor. The popularity of these records confirmed Oscar as Canada's first jazz star. Continued exposure on CBC Radio and two tours of Western Canada in 1946 would accelerate Oscar's career and by 1947, he was headlining Montréal's Alberta Lounge with his own trio.
Oscar was diagnosed with chronic arthritis
This trio featured Clarence Jones on drums and Austin "Ozzie" Roberts on bass, with Ben Johnson occasionally subbing for Jones. The trio's performances were broadcast to Montréal's CJAD straight from the lounge and would be some of the only recorded documents of the trio's work. Another example of their recorded work was the trio's soundtrack for Norman McLaren's Begone Dull Care in 1949. Word of Oscar's talent had spread to the U.S. by the 1940's when Dizzy Gillespie told composer and record producer Leonard Feather that "There's a pianist up here who's just too much. You've never heard anything like it! We gotta put him in concert." Feather however would ignore this, and it would become a lasting regret in his career.
It was record producer Norman Granz who would send Oscar's career into the stratosphere. In 1949, while Granz was on a trip to Montréal, he discovered Oscar's talent in earnest while he was on the way to the airport. He heard Oscar playing on an Alberta Lounge broadcast on CJAD, and Granz told the cabbie to turn around and drive him straight to the lounge. Granz convinced Oscar to join him at the Jazz at the Philharmonic in September of that year. There was only one change Granz asked of Oscar: Get rid of the boogie-woogie. It was a change that Oscar was more than happy to make.
Granz introduced Oscar to American audiences at the Jazz at the Philharmonic performance in New York's Carnegie Hall on September 18th, 1949. It was a starlined show with titans of jazz performing, like Charlie Parker, Buddy Rich, Roy Eldrige, and Lester Young. However, Gran couldn't secure Peterson a work visa in time to perform. Rather than miss the opportunity, Granz planted Oscar in the audience and brought him on as a guest when it was time to perform. Oscar would perform with Ray Brown for a sensational set composed of three tunes: "Fine and Dandy","I Only Have Eyes for You", and an improvised blues tune called "Carnegie Blues." This simple set would have DownBeat magazine write, "Oscar Peterson stopped the concert dead cold in its tracks." It would be the turning point in Oscar's career; he was now an international jazz star.
Oscar and Granz developed a close relationship that would last until Granz's death in late 2001. Shortly after meeting, Oscar asked Granz to act as his manager, a role Granz normally wouldn't accept, but he was willing to make an exception for Oscar due to both their developing friendship and the potential he saw in him. The deal was sealed with a handshake and never formally committed to paper.
Word of Oscar's talent had spread to the U.S. by the 1940's when Dizzy Gillespie told composer and record producer Leonard Feather that "There's a pianist up here who's just too much. You've never heard anything like it!"
Shortly after his performance at Carnegie Hall, Oscar joined the Jazz at the Philharmonic and began touring North America with the troupe. "I was the kid of the tour, like a rookie starting with the New York Yankees, I had listened to these famous musicians on records for years, and I just didn't know how they'd receive me and how I'd get along with them musically." Oscar was comfortable as a soloist but faced real challenges in backing the horn players. Still, he quickly rose to the challenge.
For the first two years of touring, he performed his duo exclusively with Ray Brown but in year three, Granz suggested that they perform as a trio and include Charlie Smith on the drums. Oscar enjoyed the dynamics of a trio but would pivot from Smith and drums to a piano-bass-guitar lineup and begin working with Irving Ashby and Barney Kessel. Kessel departed at the end of the touring year, and Oscar would find a replacement in Herb Ellis after he was recommended by Ray. The trio quickly earned a reputation that was unparalleled.
They toured for years across North America and Europe, often with Ella Fitzgerald singing alongside them. In 1953, the group even toured across Japan. Outside of the trio's rigorous touring schedule, they recorded extensively, producing dozens of records for both studio and live recordings. The dynamic trio worked so well because they pushed each other's boundaries extensively during this time. Their camaraderie was reflected not just in their music but their practical jokes. Oscar and Ray particularly enjoyed messing with each other, with Oscar fooling around on Ray's bass between sets by down tuning it and watching as Ray thumped and bumped through a song.
Ray had one joke he was particularly fond of: Telling Oscar that Art Tatum was in the crowd. Even at this point in Oscar's prolific career he revered Tatum and everytime Ray would say he was in the audience Oscar would freeze up until he realized that he'd been played. However in 1954 at a Washington, D.C. show, Ray would pipe up and say "I don't believe this, Art Tatum's over there at the bar." Oscar wasn't having any of Ray's jokes, though, until he looked up and saw Tatum for himself. During intermission, Ray dragged Oscar over to meet his idol and Tatum invited Oscar to join him at an after-hours club after the show. There, Tatum asked Oscar to play and Oscar made an audacious choice to play "Tea for Two", which was one of Tatum's signature songs.
After the song, Tatum told Oscar, "As long as I'm alive, I don't figure I'm going to let you have it. But you're the next one after me." Oscar and Tatum would become close friends for the remainder of Tatum's life but in November 1956, Tatum would die of kidney failure. By 1958, Ellis would leave the trio to focus on the battle against alcoholism that plagued him throughout his career. Oscar once again took Brown's suggestion and called on drummer Ed Thigpen to join the trio.
The new trio would bring six years of what Oscar described as "unbelievable music." Oscar, Ray, Ed, Butch Watanabe, and composer Phil Nimmons opened the Advanced School of Contemporary Music in Toronto, Ontario, in 1960, fulfilling a lifelong dream of Oscar's. The school was successful but financial difficulties brought an early end after just three years of operation. In 1962, the trio faced an incredibly strenuous recording and touring schedule that resulted in seven studio albums and four live concert albums within the year.
Outside of the trio's rigorous touring schedule, they recorded extensively, producing dozens of records for both studio and live recordings
Oscar would expand his horizons beyond just playing. In 1964, his first compositions, Canadiana Suite were released. The same year, Oscar was invited to play a private engagement for the eccentric German millionaire Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer. Brunner-Schwer held a passion for jazz music and audio recording technology, and despite a language barrier, Oscar and Brunne-Schwer developed a close relationship. Oscar recorded some of his best work, both solo and as a trio, in intimate recording sessions at Brunner-Schwer's estate. The trio recorded Night Train (1962) during this time, which would go on to be one of Oscar's most commercially successful albums while the trio's Canadiana Suite (1964) album would go on to be his most acclaimed.
In 1965, the trio dissolved after Ed Thigpen grew tired of the rigorous touring schedule, with Brown following shortly after. Oscar would reinvent the trio in 1966 with a new evolving line up. Originally, Louis Hayes replaced Thigpen on drums but it was decided that Bobby Durham was a better fit. Sam Jones took over Brown's position on bass. By this time, Brunner-Schwer had formed his own record label, and would continue to work with Oscar on records of both his solo and trio albums.
By 1970, Oscar began to perform solo almost exclusively but would return to an ensemble in 1972 with guitarist Joe Pass and bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen. This new trio would rival the success of the Oscar-Brown-Ellis group, and eventually expanded to a quartet in 1974 with the addition of drummer Martin Drew. Around this time and throughout the rest of the '70s, Oscar recorded with artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, and countless others.
The mid-1970s saw Oscar's work gain his highest degree of critical acclaim with four Grammy Award-winning albums: The Trio (1973), The Giants (1974), Oscar Oscar and the Trumpet Kings - Jousts (1974) , and Montreux '77 (1977). During this time, he also released a number of live albums from concerts in Tokyo, Paris, London, The Hague, and New York. Oscar's arthritis would begin to worsen around this time, leading to increased difficulty in walking and some cancellations due to hand pains.
By 1977, Oscar was back to playing more solo recitals, doing less touring, and focusing more on composing. He would go on to play and record in a duo with fellow pianist Herbie Hancock and would make several appearances at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. This included a concert with the Montréal Symphony Orchestra at the Forum in 1984. In addition, he performed at Ontario Place and Roy Thomson Hall as part of jazz festivals in Toronto. In 1983, his album If You Could See Me Now, recorded with his quartet, won a 1987 Juno Award for Best Jazz Album. By the end of the 80s, his arthritis had become so incredibly severe that his performance schedule was reduced to a matter of weeks each year.
These circumstances didn't slow him down much and 1990 saw the reunion of the Brown-Ellis trio and the production of several acclaimed albums of their performances at the Blue Note club in New York. Live at the Blue Note (1990) and Saturday Night at the Blue Note (1990) won Oscar three more Grammy Awards, and Last Call at the Blue Note (1990) received a Juno Award nomination.
Health problems began to worsen for Oscar in 1993 when several months after hip replacement surgery, he suffered a stroke while performing at the Blue Note. His left side was especially affected, leading him to withdraw from his commitments for the next two years. However, as he followed a two-year recovery plan, he gradually resumed performing but the restricted agility of his left hand became more noticeable.
His stroke marked what Oscar claimed to be the darkest time in his life. His frustration with daily physical therapy and the inability to perform plunged him into a dark depression. Bassist and close friend of Oscar, Dave Young, called Oscar one day and announced he was coming over with his instrument. Oscar said he couldn't play but Young brushed it off with "You're gonna play. I'm coming over." When Young arrived, Oscar remembered, "he called all these tunes that required both hands. He said, 'See, there's nothing wrong with you. You should play more often.'" This renewed Oscar's spirits and after about 14 months of intensive physical therapy and practice, he would make his legendary comeback ... at his daughter's elementary school. But he quickly went back to local clubs and then the touring circuit began again.
Oscar recorded with artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, and countless others
Broadcasting legend Ross Porter commented on Oscar's affliction after his death: "What he was able to achieve, playing with half of what most other pianists had, he was still light years ahead of everyone else." In 1997, Oscar received a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement and an International Jazz Hall of Fame Award. He continued to tour from 1997 until about 2007, shortly before his death. He published his own memoir, A Jazz Odyssey: The Life of Oscar Peterson in 2002. Through the later stages of his life, he focussed more extensively on composing.
Oscar described his composing style as sitting in his home studio and "doodling" on keyboards hooked up to his computers. "Most of my writing is spontaneous. In jazz, It comes directly from your inner feelings at that exact moment in time. I don't necessarily start out with anything. Most of it is built on one thing — emotion. And I say that not being a maudlin. Inwardly, I'm thinking of something in particular, something I like or something that's getting to me. And at some point it comes out musically." On December 23rd, 2007, Oscar died in his home in Mississauga, Ontario, of kidney failure, going the same way as his hero and friend, Art Tatum.
His legacy could best be summed up by American pianist Hank Jones who said, "Oscar is head and shoulders above any pianist alive today. Oscar is the apex. He is the crowning ruler of all the pianists in the jazz world. No question about it." Oscar would be married four times throughout his life, the first to Lillian Fraser in 1944 till about 1958. Together they had two sons and three daughters. His second marriage to Sandra King happened in 1966 and lasted until 1976. His third wife was Charlotte Huber and their marriage lasted from 1977 untill 1987. Together they had a daughter, and his final marriage was to Kelly Oscar in 1990 and lasted until his death in 2007. Together, they had a daughter.
Racism and Adversity
Oscar Peterson was a black man who lived in both a pre- and post-civil rights world. He faced a lot of racism and adversity throughout his life, and rather than gloss over them I want to highlight some of the most impactful moments he faced throughout his career. As to be imagined, while a young man, Oscar was called the n-word by white kids, and even a teacher in the 4th grade. When Oscar joined Johnny Holmes's band, the manager of the Ritz-Carlton hotel told Holmes the band couldn't play there as long as Oscar was a member until Holmes threatened to run ads in three newspapers about the Ritz's racist policy. The manager backed down and the band played.
His frustration with daily physical therapy and the inability to perform plunged him into a dark depression
While performing at the Alberta Lounge, a white patron came to hear his trio play several nights in a row before the manager introduced the man to Oscar. The man raved praise for 10 minutes about Oscar's playing before telling him he should visit the Deep South and play for folks down there. When Oscar reached out to shake the man's hand in gratitude, the man pulled back and said "Down home in Georgia, we don't shake hands with a n*****."
In the fall of 1950, shortly after joining his first JATP tour, Granz suggested that Oscar pass up the weeks that the tour passed through the southern states. Granz was worried that Oscar wouldn't be able to handle the open racism and division in the South but Oscar told Granz he signed up for the whole tour. As the tour trickled across the southern states, Oscar and his fellow black musicians went from staying at top-of-the-line hotels and dining at gourmet restaurants alongside their white friends and colleagues to staying in dingy motels in segregated neighborhoods and getting food brought to them in to-go bags.
"Oscar is the apex. He is the crowning ruler of all the pianists in the jazz world. No question about it."
In the biography, Oscar Peterson: The Man and His Jazz by Jack Batten, Batten writes about one night Oscar experienced in one of these rundown motels. "What Oscar felt was worse than shame. His spirits dropped away, and sometimes, on his first tours through the segregated South, despair overcame him. In his seedy hotel room in one southern city, Oscar sniffed the stale smell of ancient cigar smoke in the air, examined the thin towel over the dirty sink in the corner and the even thinner blanket on the sagging bed, and shuddered at the sight of the pail of sand in the corner that he was supposed to use as a urinal. How had he come to such a low and miserable state? He was an artist, a well-known piano player. People paid money to listen to him. And yet he was looked on as a man who deserved only second class treatment, all because of the color of his skin. Oscar lay on the terrible bed in the terrible room and wept."
In May of 1951, Oscar attempted to get his hair cut in Hamilton, Ontario, after being booked at a cocktail bar known as the Hunting room in the downtown Fischer hotel. He was joined by Ray Brown, who, after failing to find a black barber, recommended a barber he had found near the Fischer hotel who did a decent job. A day later, Oscar attempted to get his haircut there, only to be told they were closed the moment he walked in the door. A while later that same day, he walked back in and got the same response just as a white man was being taken to the chair for a trim. Oscar was furious and described the experience to Lloyd Fisher, owner of the Fischer hotel and an influential man around town. Two phone calls to the local crown attorney, and the major newspaper, the Spectator, and Oscar's encounter was the talk of the town.
There wasn't any real justice dealt. Oscar got an insincere apology from the barbershop, the barber who cut Brown's hair commented on the matter saying he was the only one qualified to cut a black man's hair, and not much else happened. Oscar never forgot this encounter. His anger at the racism he and so many others faced never emerged in his music. He played with force, but not anger. However, this oppression would play an important part in Oscar's career when he composed a song about race and civil rights, a song of hope rather than of anger. It was in a recording session with the trio in 1962 when Granz asked for one more song to tie the thing together. Oscar drew upon the black gospel music he'd grown up with and generated a righteous melody that the others picked up and turned into a gently rocking anthem. Granz loved it, and when asked for a title Oscar said "Call it Hymn to Freedom.'"
A few months later, Granz hired Harriette Hamilton to write lyrics for the song with Hamilton working with a black American choir called the Malcom Dodds Singers. "Hymn to Freedom" was Oscar's first major composition and remains his most popular to this day. In the 1980s, Oscar would grow tired of racism in advertising and worked with Gene Lees to publish Oscar's criticism of racist advertising. This editorial proved to be an industry-defining moment when Roy McMurtry read the article and thought Oscar's ideas fit his approach to rights issues. McMurtry was Ontario's attorney general and he focused largely on civil rights throughout his career.
Together, McMurtry arranged a series of lunch meetings with top ad executives and marketing people to talk about racism in advertising and Oscar served as a guest of honor to expand upon his points and issues with the industry. It was not a snap-of-the-fingers and the world was suddenly a better place, but slowly advertising began to appeal to a wider spectrum of people as they began to cast actors of every color.
Oscar Peterson: Pipe Smoker
Oscar Peterson was a well-documented pipe and cigarette smoker throughout his entire life. He attempted to quit several times but his weight gain would push him to start again. On the cover of My Favorite Instrument, he can be seen smoking what is believed to be a Horry Jamieson GBD Unique. There isn't a lot of information regarding what tobacco he particularly smoked but based on the shapes he's been photographed with it seems his preferences were straight English Billiards. In some photographs, he can be seen smoking what I believe to be Pall Mall cigarettes. Some internet folks say he smoked Prince Albert and Velvet but those claims are dubious at best. Regardless of whether he was smoking or not, Oscar always carried a Dunhill lighter to light the cigarettes of others. Dizzy Gillespie nicknamed him "The Flame" because he always seemed to have his lighter out and alight before anyone else when a cigarette was produced. In an interesting anecdote, it was said that once while performing, he leaned over and lit a cigarette for a woman in the front row with his right hand while his left tickled the ivories without missing a beat.
His anger at the racism he and so many others faced never emerged in his music
Oscar Peterson's legacy can be felt to this day, and not only in jazz music. He was a titan, a man with unmatched skill and precision who inspired those around him and pushed his collaborators outside their comfort and in return, they did the same to him. His legacy will be felt for generations and inspire passionate artists, musicians, and listeners alike to strive to be truly the best at what they do, no matter what that may be.
- Batten, J. (2012). Oscar Peterson: The man and his Jazz. Tundra Books.
- Lees, G. (1994). Oscar Peterson: The will to swing. CNIB.
- Oscarpeterson.com. (2000, December 13). Timeline of Oscar Peterson's life. A look at Oscar Peterson's career.
- Magazine, S. (2005, January 1). Return of a virtuoso. Smithsonian.com.
- Oscar Peterson. The Canadian Encyclopedia. (2013, September 3).
- Edwards, B. (2003, February 21). Oscar Peterson's "Jazz odyssey." NPR.
- Cerra, S. (2014, November 26). Oscar Peterson - bursting out. Oscar Peterson - Bursting Out.