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Oscar Peterson

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Oscar Peterson
Peterson in 1977
Peterson in 1977
Background information
Birth nameOscar Emmanuel Peterson
Born(1925-08-15)August 15, 1925
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
DiedDecember 23, 2007(2007-12-23) (aged 82)
Mississauga, Ontario, Canada
  • Musician
  • composer
Instrument(s)Piano, synthesizer
Years active1945–2007

Oscar Emmanuel Peterson CC CQ OOnt (August 15, 1925 – December 23, 2007)[1] was a Canadian jazz pianist and composer. Considered a virtuoso and one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time, Peterson released more than 200 recordings, won eight Grammy Awards, as well as a lifetime achievement award from the Recording Academy, and received numerous other awards and honours. He played thousands of concerts worldwide in a career lasting more than 60 years. He was called the "Maharaja of the keyboard" by Duke Ellington, simply "O.P." by his friends, and informally in the jazz community, "the King of inside swing".

Peterson worked in duos with Sam Jones, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, Joe Pass, Irving Ashby,[2] Count Basie,[3] and Herbie Hancock.[4] He considered the trio with Ray Brown and Herb Ellis "the most stimulating" and productive setting for public performances and studio recordings. In the early 1950s, he began performing with Brown and drummer Charlie Smith as the Oscar Peterson Trio. Shortly afterward Smith was replaced by guitarist Irving Ashby, who had been a member of the Nat King Cole Trio. Ashby, who was a swing guitarist, was soon replaced by Kessel.[5] Their last recording, On the Town with the Oscar Peterson Trio, recorded live at the Town Tavern in Toronto, captured a remarkable degree of emotional as well as musical understanding among three players.[6]

Peterson won eight Grammy Awards during his lifetime between 1975 and 1997. He is considered among the best jazz pianists and jazz improvisers of the twentieth century.


Early years[edit]

Peterson was born in Montreal, Quebec, to immigrants from the West Indies (Saint Kitts and Nevis and the British Virgin Islands);[7] His mother, Kathleen, was a domestic worker; his father, Daniel, worked as a porter for Canadian Pacific Railway and was an amateur musician who taught himself to play the organ, trumpet and piano.[8][9][7] Peterson grew up in the neighbourhood of Little Burgundy in Montreal. It was in this predominantly black neighbourhood that he encountered the jazz culture.[10] At the age of five, Peterson began honing his skills on trumpet and piano, but a bout of tuberculosis when he was seven prevented him from playing the trumpet again, so he directed all his attention to the piano.[11] His father was one of his first music teachers, and his sister Daisy taught him classical piano. Peterson was persistent at practicing scales and classical études.

As a child, Peterson studied with Hungarian-born pianist Paul de Marky, a student of István Thomán, who was himself a pupil of Franz Liszt, so his early training was predominantly based on classical piano. But he was captivated by traditional jazz and boogie-woogie and learned several ragtime pieces. He was called "the Brown Bomber of the Boogie-Woogie".[12]

At the age of nine, Peterson played piano with a degree of control that impressed professional musicians. For many years his piano studies included four to six hours of daily practice. Only in his later years did he decrease his practice to one or two hours daily. In 1940, at fourteen years of age, he won the national music competition organized by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. After that victory, he dropped out of the High School of Montreal, where he played in a band with Maynard Ferguson.[13] He became a professional pianist, starring in a weekly radio show and playing at hotels and music halls. In his teens he was a member of the Johnny Holmes Orchestra. From 1945 to 1949 he worked in a trio and recorded for Victor Records. He gravitated toward boogie-woogie and swing with a particular fondness for Nat King Cole and Teddy Wilson.[14] By the time he was in his 20s, he had developed a reputation as a technically brilliant and melodically inventive pianist.[15]

Duos, trios, and quartets[edit]

Peterson with Ella Fitzgerald, 1964

According to an interview with Norman Granz, he heard a radio program broadcasting from a local club while taking a cab to the Montreal airport. He was so impressed that he told the driver to take him to the club so he could meet the pianist.[citation needed] Granz had seen Peterson before this but was underwhelmed.[citation needed] In 1949 he introduced Peterson in New York City at a Jazz at the Philharmonic concert at Carnegie Hall.[12] He remained Peterson's manager for most of his career. This was more than a managerial relationship; Peterson praised Granz for standing up for him and other black jazz musicians in the segregationist south US of the 1950s and 1960s. In the documentary video Music in the Key of Oscar, Peterson tells how Granz stood up to a gun-toting Southern policeman who wanted to stop the trio from using "whites-only" taxis.[16]

In 1950, Peterson worked in a duo with double bassist Ray Brown. Two years later they added guitarist Barney Kessel. Then Herb Ellis stepped in after Kessel grew weary of touring. The trio remained together from 1953 to 1958, often touring with Jazz at the Philharmonic.[14] By 1956, Peterson's performances were also showcased on national radio networks by Ben Selvin within the RCA Thesaurus transcriptions library.[17]

Peterson also worked in duos with Sam Jones, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, Joe Pass, Irving Ashby,[2] Count Basie,[3] and Herbie Hancock.[4]

He considered the trio with Brown and Ellis "the most stimulating" and productive setting for public performances and studio recordings. In the early 1950s, he began performing with Brown and drummer Charlie Smith as the Oscar Peterson Trio. Shortly afterward Smith was replaced by guitarist Irving Ashby, who had been a member of the Nat King Cole Trio. Ashby, who was a swing guitarist, was soon replaced by Kessel.[5] Their last recording, On the Town with the Oscar Peterson Trio, recorded live at the Town Tavern in Toronto, captured a remarkable degree of emotional as well as musical understanding among three players.[6]

When Ellis departed in 1958, they hired drummer Ed Thigpen because they felt no guitarist could compare to Ellis.[14] Brown and Thigpen worked with Peterson on his albums Night Train and Canadiana Suite. Both left in 1965 and were replaced by bassist Sam Jones and drummer Louis Hayes (and later, drummer Bobby Durham). The trio performed together until 1970. In 1969 Peterson recorded Motions and Emotions with orchestral arrangements of "Yesterday" and "Eleanor Rigby" by The Beatles. In the fall of 1970, Peterson's trio released the album Tristeza on Piano. Jones and Durham left in 1970.

Oscar Peterson Trio in 1959

In the 1970s Peterson formed a trio with guitarist Joe Pass and bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen. This trio emulated the success of the 1950s trio with Brown and Ellis and gave acclaimed performances at festivals. Their album The Trio won the 1974 Grammy Award for Best Jazz Performance by a Group. On April 22, 1978, Peterson performed in the interval act for the Eurovision Song Contest 1978 that was broadcast live from the Palais des congrès de Paris. In 1974 he added British drummer Martin Drew. This quartet toured and recorded extensively worldwide. Pass said in a 1976 interview, "The only guys I've heard who come close to total mastery of their instruments are Art Tatum and Peterson".[18]

Peterson was open to experimental collaborations with jazz musicians such as saxophonist Ben Webster, trumpeter Clark Terry, and vibraphonist Milt Jackson. In 1961, the Peterson trio with Jackson recorded the album Very Tall. His solo recordings were rare until Exclusively for My Friends (MPS), a series of albums that were his response to pianists such as Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner. He recorded for Pablo, led by Norman Granz, after the label was founded in 1973, including the soundtrack for the 1978 thriller The Silent Partner.[19] In the 1980s he played in a duo with pianist Herbie Hancock. In the late 1980s and 1990s, after a stroke, he made performances and recordings with his protégé Benny Green. In the 1990s and 2000s he recorded several albums accompanied by a combo for Telarc.

Ill health and later years[edit]

Tombstone of Oscar Peterson at St. Peter's Anglican Church in Mississauga

Peterson had arthritis from his youth, and in later years he had trouble buttoning his shirt. Never slender, his weight increased to 125 kg (276 lb), hindering his mobility. He had hip replacement surgery in the early 1990s.[20] Although the surgery was successful, his mobility was still hampered. He then mentored the York University jazz program and was the Chancellor of the university for several years in the early 1990s.[21][22] He published jazz piano etudes for practice.

In 1993, a stroke weakened his left side and removed him from work for two years. During the same year, incoming prime minister Jean Chrétien, his friend and fan, offered him the position of Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario. According to Chrétien, Peterson declined the job due to ill health related to the stroke.[23]

Although he recovered some dexterity in his left hand, his piano playing was diminished, and his style relied principally on his right hand. In 1995 he returned to occasional public performances and recorded for Telarc. In 1997 he received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and an International Jazz Hall of Fame Award. His friend, Canadian politician and amateur pianist Bob Rae, said, "a one-handed Oscar was better than just about anyone with two hands."[24]

In 2003, Peterson recorded the DVD A Night in Vienna for Verve with Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, Ulf Wakenius, and Martin Drew. He continued to tour the U.S. and Europe, though at most one month a year, with rest between concerts. In 2007, his health declined. He canceled his plans to perform at the Toronto Jazz Festival and a Carnegie Hall all-star concert that was to be given in his honour. Peterson died on December 23, 2007, of kidney failure at his home in Mississauga, Ontario.[1][25]

Personal life, composer and teacher[edit]

Peterson was married four times. He had seven children with three of his wives.[26] He smoked cigarettes and a pipe and often tried to break the habit, but he gained weight every time he stopped. He loved to cook and remained overweight throughout his life.[27]

Peterson taught piano and improvisation in Canada, mainly in Toronto. With associates, he started and headed the Advanced School of Contemporary Music in Toronto for five years during the 1960s, but it closed because touring called him and his associates away, and it did not have government funding.[28]


Peterson was influenced by Teddy Wilson, Nat King Cole, James P. Johnson, and Art Tatum, to whom many compared Peterson in later years.[29] After his father played a record of Tatum's "Tiger Rag", he was intimidated and disillusioned, quitting the piano for several weeks. "Tatum scared me to death," said Peterson, adding that he was "never cocky again" about his ability at the piano.[30] Tatum was a model for Peterson's musicianship during the 1940s and 1950s. Tatum and Peterson became good friends, although Peterson was always shy about being compared to Tatum and rarely played the piano in Tatum's presence.

Peterson also credited his sister—a piano teacher in Montreal who also taught several other Canadian jazz musicians—with being an important teacher and influence on his career. Under his sister's tutelage, Peterson expanded into classical piano training and broadened his range while mastering the core classical pianism from scales to preludes and fugues by Johann Sebastian Bach.[31] He asked his students to study the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, especially The Well-Tempered Clavier, the Goldberg Variations, and The Art of Fugue, considering these piano pieces essential for every serious pianist. Among his students were pianists Benny Green and Oliver Jones.[32]

Building on Tatum's pianism and aesthetics, Peterson also absorbed Tatum's musical influences, notably from piano concertos by Sergei Rachmaninoff. Rachmaninoff's harmonizations, as well as direct quotations from his 2nd Piano Concerto, are scattered throughout many recordings by Peterson, including his work with the most familiar formulation of the Oscar Peterson Trio, with bassist Ray Brown and guitarist Herb Ellis. During the 1960s and 1970s Peterson made numerous trio recordings highlighting his piano performances; they reveal more of his eclectic style, absorbing influences from various genres of jazz, popular, and classical music.

According to pianist and educator Mark Eisenman, some of Peterson's best playing was as an understated accompanist to singer Ella Fitzgerald and trumpeter Roy Eldridge.[33]

Peterson is considered one of history's great jazz pianists.[34] He was called the "Maharaja of the keyboard" by Duke Ellington, simply "O.P." by his friends, and informally in the jazz community as "the King of inside swing".[35][36]


In 2021, Barry Avrich produced a documentary on Peterson's life titled Oscar Peterson: Black + White that had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.[37]

Oscar Peterson was the subject of a circulating commemorative 1 Canadian dollar coin in 2022.[38]

Awards and honours[edit]

Grammy Awards[edit]

Other awards[edit]

A statue of Oscar Peterson was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa in June 2010.


  • Bösendorfer pianos – 1980s and 2000s, some performances from the 70s onward.
  • Yamaha – Acoustic and Disklavier; used from 1998 to 2006 in Canada (Touring and Recording)
  • Steinway & Sons Model A (which currently resides at Village Studios in Los Angeles) – most performances from the 1940s through the 1980s, some recordings.
  • Baldwin pianos – some performances in the US, some recordings.
  • C. Bechstein Pianofortefabrik pianos – some performances and recordings in Europe.
  • Petrof pianos – some performances in Europe.
  • Clavichord – on album Porgy and Bess with Joe Pass
  • Fender Rhodes electric piano – several recordings.
  • Synthesizer – several recordings.
  • Hammond organ – some live performances and several recordings.
  • Vocals – some live performances and several recordings.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Canadian jazz great Oscar Peterson dies". CBC News. December 24, 2007. Retrieved December 24, 2007.
  2. ^ a b Dobbins, Bill; Kernfeld, Barry (2003). "Peterson, Oscar". doi:10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.j352400. ISBN 978-1-56159-263-0. Retrieved January 15, 2018.
  3. ^ a b Knauer, Wolfram (2013). "Basie, Count". doi:10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.a2240170. ISBN 978-1-56159-263-0. Retrieved January 15, 2018.
  4. ^ a b King, Betty Nygaard. "Oscar Peterson". The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved January 15, 2018.
  5. ^ a b "A look at Oscar Peterson's career". oscarpeterson.com. Archived from the original on April 28, 2007. Retrieved May 23, 2007.
  6. ^ a b Nat Hentoff. Co-editor, The Jazz Review.
  7. ^ a b King, Betty Nygaard. "Oscar Peterson". The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved August 11, 2022.
  8. ^ "Obituaries: Oscar Peterson". The Daily Telegraph. London. December 26, 2007. Archived from the original on January 11, 2022. Retrieved February 6, 2011.
  9. ^ Michelot, Pabli. "Le Jazz d’Oscar Peterson". L'Encre Noir, February 8, 2017.
  10. ^ "Little Burgundy". McGill University. Archived from the original on April 23, 2018. Retrieved December 25, 2007.
  11. ^ Lees, Gene (1988). Oscar Peterson : the will to swing. Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys. p. 23. ISBN 9780886191276. Retrieved May 20, 2023.
  12. ^ a b J. D. Considine (December 26, 2007). "King of the keys made jazz a pleasure". The Globe and Mail. Toronto. Archived from the original on December 26, 2007. Retrieved January 12, 2008.
  13. ^ Maynard Ferguson (obituary) dated August 26, 2006, at The Daily Telegraph online, accessed December 30, 2017
  14. ^ a b c Yanow, Scott. "Oscar Peterson". AllMusic. Retrieved August 14, 2018.
  15. ^ John Chilton (August 5, 2002). Roy Eldridge, Little Jazz Giant. Bloomsbury Academic. ISBN 978-0-8264-5692-2.
  16. ^ View Video, 2004.
  17. ^ "Billboard". Nielsen Business Media, Inc. August 18, 1956 – via Google Books.
  18. ^ White, Huy (2016). 25 Great Jazz Piano Solos : Transcriptions * Lessons * Bios * Photos. Hal Leonard. p. 96. ISBN 978-1-4950-6530-9. OCLC 974891066.
  19. ^ Yanow, Scott (2000). Bebop. Miller Freeman. pp. 333–. ISBN 978-0-87930-608-3. Retrieved August 14, 2018.
  20. ^ "Peterson, Oscar". MusicWeb Encyclopaedia of Popular Music. Archived from the original on May 22, 2006. Retrieved December 25, 2007.
  21. ^ "'I don't think we'll ever see another Oscar Peterson': Oliver Jones". CBC News. January 11, 2008. Retrieved January 12, 2008.
  22. ^ "YFile » Ron Westray appointed as Oscar Peterson Chair". Yfile-archive.news.yorku.ca. September 24, 2009. Retrieved August 14, 2018.
  23. ^ Alexander Panetta. "Chrétien calls Peterson 'most famous Canadian', says Mandela was moved to meet him". CANOE. The Canadian Press. Archived from the original on December 26, 2007. Retrieved December 26, 2007.
  24. ^ "Oscar Peterson Tribute - Simply The Best". Concerts On Demand. CBC Radio Two. January 12, 2008. Archived from the original on January 15, 2008. Retrieved January 13, 2008.
  25. ^ Levine, Doug (December 27, 2007). "Jazz World Mourns Oscar Peterson". VOA News. Voice of America. Archived from the original on January 29, 2009. Retrieved December 27, 2008.
  26. ^ Voce, Steve (December 26, 2007). "Oscar Peterson: Virtuoso pianist who dominated jazz piano in the second half of the 20th century". The Independent. Retrieved August 15, 2018.
  27. ^ Batten, Jack (September 11, 2012). Oscar Peterson: The Man and His Jazz. Tundra. p. 82. ISBN 9781770493629. Retrieved January 20, 2018 – via Internet Archive.
  28. ^ Al Levy (November 21, 2004). "Oscar Peterson". alevy.com. Retrieved January 12, 2008.
  29. ^ "Oscar Peterson | Bio". Archived from the original on December 26, 2007. Retrieved December 25, 2007.
  30. ^ Don Heckman (December 25, 2007). "Oscar Peterson, 82; pianist dazzled jazz world with technique, creativity". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on December 28, 2007. Retrieved January 12, 2008.
  31. ^ William R Cunningham and Sylvia Sweeney, In the Key of Oscar, National Film Board of Canada, 1992.
  32. ^ "Several of jazz world's top names to honour Oscar Peterson at free concert". The Canadian Press. January 12, 2008. Archived from the original on December 31, 2007. Retrieved January 12, 2008.
  33. ^ Shsante Infantry (December 26, 2007). "Oscar Peterson, 82: Jazz giant". The Toronto Star. Retrieved January 12, 2008.
  34. ^ Scott Yanow. "Oscar Peterson Biography". AllMusic. Retrieved January 28, 2007.. With typical modesty, Peterson hailed Art Tatum as the greatest jazz pianist, declaring: "He was and is my musical God, and I feel honoured to remain one of his humbly developed disciples." Journal, Oscar Peterson, March 7, 2004; Jazz Professional, 1962, "Oscar Peterson Points". Archived from the original on June 29, 2011. Retrieved July 14, 2011.
  35. ^ Remarks by Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones and Bob Rae, Oscar Peterson Tribute - Simply The Best. Concerts On Demand. CBC Radio Two (January 12, 2008). Retrieved on January 13, 2008.
  36. ^ Severo, Richard (October 20, 2010). "Oscar Peterson: 1925-2007 / Virtuoso pianist - among jazz world's giants". The San Francisco Chronicle.
  37. ^ "Canadian Pianist Oscar Peterson Receives the TIFF treatment". www.classicalfm.ca. Retrieved December 29, 2021.
  38. ^ "1 Dollar - Elizabeth II, Canada". en.numista.com. Retrieved July 19, 2023.
  39. ^ a b "Oscar Peterson: Montreal-born pianist is an unofficial Canadian ambassador". Concordia.ca. Archived from the original on August 22, 2018. Retrieved August 14, 2018.
  40. ^ "Oscar Peterson's Order of Canada Citation". Governor General of Canada. Retrieved March 2, 2022.
  41. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on October 25, 2019. Retrieved November 21, 2019.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  42. ^ "Oscar Peterson concert hall". Concordia University. Retrieved January 28, 2007.
  43. ^ "Oscar Peterson's Golden Jubilee Medal Citation". Governor General of Canada. Retrieved March 2, 2022.
  44. ^ "2008 SOCAN Awards". Socan.ca. Archived from the original on October 7, 2016. Retrieved January 20, 2018.
  45. ^ "Legendary Jazz Pianist to Receive City's Highest Award" Archived May 8, 2014, at the Wayback Machine, Mississauga – Newsroom, September 8, 2003.
  46. ^ "News | University of Toronto". Utoronto.ca. Archived from the original on May 10, 2008.
  47. ^ ""Celebrate the Jazz" - Oscar Peterson Public School Official Opening". York Region District School Board. Archived from the original on April 27, 2009. Retrieved November 3, 2009.
  48. ^ "Fiche descriptive - Parc Oscar-Peterson". toponymie.gouv.qc.ca. Commission de toponymie du Québec.
  49. ^ Martin Knelman (June 29, 2010). "Knelman: Oscar Peterson's piano lives on in Ottawa". Toronto Star. Retrieved August 15, 2015.
  50. ^ "Oscar Peterson sculpture awaits Queen's hand". CBC News. June 16, 2010. Retrieved September 29, 2010.
  51. ^ "Jazz born here". Art Public Montréal. Retrieved August 13, 2022.
  52. ^ "New Heritage Minute celebrates Oscar Peterson's legendary jazz career | CBC News". CBC. Retrieved February 17, 2021.
  53. ^ "Honorary Degree Citation". Archives.concordia.ca. Retrieved April 11, 2016.
  54. ^ King, Betty Nygaard. "Oscar Peterson". The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved February 28, 2017.
  55. ^ "Montreal to honour jazz legend Oscar Peterson by naming public square after him". Retrieved September 8, 2021.

Further reading[edit]

  • Oscar Peterson. A Jazz Odyssey: The Life of Oscar Peterson. (Autobiography of the pianist edited by Richard Palmer). Continuum Press. 2002. London and New York.

External links[edit]

Academic offices
Preceded by Chancellor of York University
Succeeded by