Oscar Peterson, a virtuoso at the piano whose swinging style made him one of the most popular artists in jazz history, will be honored posthumously next month in Toronto at an annual gathering of the global jazz community.
Peterson, who was 82, died Sunday of kidney failure in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, Ontario. He was scheduled to receive a special award from the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts and the Canada Council on Jan. 11 at the Intl. Assn. for Jazz Education conference. The tribute will go ahead as planned, with Montreal pianist and former Peterson student Oliver Jones playing excerpts from Peterson’s “Canadiana Suite.”
Known for his agility, speed and ornate touches — composer-arranger Lalo Schifrin once called him the “Liszt of modern jazz” — Peterson brought a unique command of swing rhythms, meter and cadence to his playing that brought him uncommon popularity. The jazz man’s flashiness won him hurrahs from impressed auds and the occasional pan from unmoved critics. He was best known for his trios but also well regarded as an accompanist for singers and instrumental soloists.
He famously backed Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Ben Webster, Lester Young and Louis Armstrong.
Initial inspiration for his style, Peterson said, was Nat King Cole; the historian Dan Morgenstern once narrowed it down further, declaring that the core of Peterson’s inspiration can be found in Cole’s 1946 recording of “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love With Me.”
Peterson received a staggering number of awards and honors, including eight Grammy awards between 1974 and 1991 and a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in ’97; he is the only living person besides a reigning monarch ever to be honored with a stamp in his native Canada.
Born in the poor St. Antoine district of Montreal, he came of age at a time when many pianists were gravitating to the then-new bebop or the sophisticated balladry of Erroll Garner. The Peterson style borrowed from both in addition to the early jazz styles of Art Tatum, Earl Hines and the boogie-woogie master James P. Johnson. At the age of 14, believing himself quite accomplished, he stopped playing after hearing a recording by Tatum. After two months, he focused on becoming a better pianist.
In 1942 he joined the Johnny Holmes Orchestra, playing dance music in and around the Montreal area. He made his first solo album in 1945, and his boogie-woogie perfs developed a following in concerts and on radio.
Norman Granz, the impresario behind the Jazz at the Philharmonic tours that made Peterson a star, began orchestrating Peterson’s transformation from a boogie-woogie specialist into a more serious jazz musician starting in 1947. Peterson made his debut at Carnegie Hall in 1949 and was an instant sensation; from 1950-72 he won the Down Beat magazine readers’ poll for best jazz pianist more than a dozen times.
Granz also signed him to his Verve Records, appearing to have an endless appetite for Peterson’s recordings: In 1959 alone, Peterson recorded a dozen albums that Verve would release over the course of two years. Peterson, like his labelmate Fitzgerald, recorded many albums of interpretations of Broadway tunesmiths’ songbooks.
From 1950 until his death, he was as active on the road as he was prolific in the studio. A headliner at jazz festivals around the world, he was just as likely to be booked at enormous venues such as the Hollywood Bowl as he was to play in a club such as Gotham’s Blue Note. Most often he performed with a trio, his band with bassist Ray Brown and guitarist Herb Ellis the most legendary. He also had a long association with the drummer Ed Thigpen and the bassist Niels Henning-Orsted Pedersen. Granz made Peterson a cornerstone of his Pablo Records label between 1974 and 1986, releasing 18 discs with Peterson as leader.
Peterson, who first learned the trumpet before taking up the piano while in elementary school, began composing in the 1960s. In 1964 he debuted his first extended work, “The Canadiana Suite.” He won the Genie Award for film score for “The Silent Partner” in 1978, and he composed “A Royal Wedding Suite” for the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer.
In the late 1970s, Peterson focused on composing and solo recitals, reducing his touring sked. A 1993 stroke deprived him of movement in his left hand. He did not perform for two years, but after relearning the instrument, he returned to recording and touring. Between 1995 and this year, nine new Peterson recordings were issued on the Telarc label.
In 2001 he was an inaugural inductee to the Canadian Jazz and Blues Hall of Fame and received a commendation from the U.S. House of Representatives for contributions to society. His autobiography, “A Jazz Odyssey: The Life of Oscar Peterson,” was published in 2002.
Peterson was married four times and had seven children. He is survived by his wife, Kelly, with whom he has a daughter.