BORN: Montreal, Quebec • 15 August 1925
It is hard to imagine the Canadian jazz scene without Oscar Peterson. Undoubtedly, without him, there would still be summer jazz festivals across the country, and smoky clubs in Montreal and Toronto would still compete for customers by showcasing musicians who emulate the greats.
But without Peterson, something of the star quality of jazz in Canada would be missing. With him, the knowledge that one of the all-time greatest came out of Canada makes every club here just a little more exciting. Peterson was born Canadian but grew up in a world that few Canadians have ever known.
He was black and English-speaking in a province that was mostly white and French; he was, therefore, as different as he could be. Anti-black racism was part of daily life for Peterson’s family, who lived and played and worked in places whites rarely went.
His father, a West Indian immigrant and railway porter, pushed all his children into music, but Oscar was special from the beginning. He played more than one instrument but showed a natural flair for the piano. At fourteen, he won a national piano contest sponsored by the CBC. Soon he had his own weekly program on a local Montreal radio station and was playing at local clubs.
Jazz arrangements were his specialty, though Peterson would later recall that jazz was the only real choice for a black piano player in the 1940s. He also remembered being turned away from many gigs because of the colour of his skin. Promoter Norman Granz discov¬ ered the precocious pianist in Montreal, and Peterson debuted at Carnegie Hall in September 1949.
In a line-up of stars, the Canadian stole the show. Here was a true virtuoso: Peterson’s apparently effortless playing, with dazzling inter¬ pretative flourishes rarely seen in one so young, almost brought the house down. His career was made that night. Most of the next ten years saw him performing with Granz’ Jazz at the Philharmonic tours, playing behind and in front of such luminaries as Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, and Lester Young.
Success brought international fame and fortune and the chance to tour with his own trio. But Peterson continued to make his home in Canada. He moved to Toronto in 1958 and briefly operated a world-famous jazz school there in the 1960s. He also became one of the most successful recording artists of his time—by 1997 he had made almost 100 albums on his own and backed other artists on dozens more.
By the 1970s Peterson was easily the most successful jazz pianist on the planet.In the world of jazz, no other Canadian could come close to that kind of claim. Though critics sometimes scolded Peterson for a failure to innovate, packed orchestra halls, shelves full of Grammy and Juno awards, and ever increasing record sales showed that his popularity with fans had not waned.
Peterson also maintained a high public profile in his native land. In 1983 he spoke out against the dearth of coloured faces in television advertising in Canada. In 1986 he began teaching music part-time at Toronto’s York University, and in 1991 he was named the school’s chancellor. Even in the 1990s this was a breakthrough of sorts, since few Canadians of colour had ever been appointed to leading positions in universities.
Peterson has been influential on many levels. He is the best-known black Canadian ever, and has doubtless been a role model in ways impossible to measure. His success has ensured a vibrant jazz scene across Canada. Today, and for almost fifty years, jazz for most Canadians begins and ends with Oscar Peterson.