Thursday, October 22, 2009

What a Jazz Pianist Should Be: Remembering Oscar Peterson

As originally published in the Times of Acadiana in January 2007....

Oscar Peterson, the great Canadian jazz pianist, passed away exactly one month ago--two days before Christmas, at the age of eighty-two--fourteen years after suffering a stroke that, despite compounding his chronic arthritis, only partially diminished the quality and frequency of his performances. He left a legacy that included more than one hundred albums, thousands of concerts, and the acclaim of a jazz community generally inclined to revere more troubled pianists (cf. Thelonius Monk, Bud Powell, Bill Evans).

Not that Peterson was untroubled. He lamented that his commitment to touring and recording cost him three marriages. Professionally, however, he was a model of sober productivity. Reared in a supportive and discipline-instilling family, he had by his mid-twenties become a star in an increasingly crowded jazz firmament. Over the years, he established himself and his various trios and quartets as standards of excellence and performed with everyone from Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Stan Getz to Billie Holliday, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and Duke Ellington.

"Good Peterson albums are abundant," wrote Len Lyons in his 1980 book The 101 Best jazz Albums, "but great ones are rare." The statement was less a condemnation than a guide for consumers daunted by Peterson's vast discography. Lyons' favorite was 1956's two-LP In Concert, but he also singled out no fewer than ten others. Nat Hentoff, in his Peterson eulogy, listed as his favorites The Oscar Peterson Trio at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival (also 1956) and Night Train (1962) while admitting that it was "difficult ... to select any as the best." As for the National association of Recording Arts and Sciences, it awarded Peterson the first of his seven Grammies in 1974 for his album The Trio.

Peterson was criticized in some quarters for lacking the iconoclastic streak often associated with jazz genius, for exploring--admittedly with breathtaking dexterity--the inner world of standards rather than the as-yet-undiscovered galaxies of the musical cosmos. To immerse oneself in his playing, however, is to discover the wisdom of seeing heaven in a wildlfower and the world in a grain of sand. As Dave Brubeck once put it, "[B]efore he was twenty [Peterson] had already encompassed what a jazz pianist should be."

In recent years, Peterson became the subject of a uniquely twenty-first-century form of praise: the YouTube comment. "I love the expression of instant pleasure when he starts playing," reads one. Another: "It was a massive privilege to have seen him in concert." Yet another: "These great jazz musicians will never realize what they brought to millions of people, how much they motivated us, made us cry, laugh and dance." There are plenty more where such encomiums came from--and, tellingly, in more languages than English.

The very literacy and profanity-free nature (a rarity among amateur Internet commentators) of such comments is itself a tribute to the man who inspired them.

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