News of someone’s death is somehow sadder when you hear of it at Christmas time, which was how we felt when we learned that Oscar Peterson had died. He has been one of our jazz heroes ever since we first heard his mercurial pianism in the 1960’s and over the years have seen some of his TV appearances and bought some of his recordings.
People who know about such things say he was a disciple of the famous Art Tatum whom he revered, but he was famous in his own right as a giant of the keyboard with the most astonishing avalanche of inventive variations that became virtually new music. He was a giant in every way, with enormous hands, sitting massively on his piano stool and acknowledging his audience and whoever were his instrumental companions, but delighting in his own powers, almost as if he was playing for himself but sharing his enjoyment.
During an illustrious career spanning seven decades, Peterson played with some of the biggest names in jazz, including Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Duke Ellington (who called him the ‘Maharajah of the keyboard’), Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.
He is also remembered for the trio he led with Ray Brown on bass and Herb Ellis on guitar in the 1950s, producing in the opinion of some his best work.
Canadian by birth and trained as a classical pianist, he quickly found fame in his chosen form of music. ‘A jazz player is an instant composer,’ Peterson once said, whilst conceding that jazz didn’t have the mass appeal of other musical genres. ‘You have to think about it, it’s an intellectual form.’ He has spoken too about his ‘will to perfection’ and in his autobiography wrote ‘it requires you to collect all your sense, emotions, physical strength and mental power, and focus them totally onto the performance – utter dedication, every time you play’.
Amongst the many tributes following the news of his death, Herbie Hancock, his only obvious successor as the world’s greatest jazz pianist, says that Peterson ‘redefined swing for modern jazz pianists….no one will ever take his place’.
And we can still listen to him.