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Canadian jazz great Oscar Peterson dies

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Canadian jazz great Oscar Peterson dies
Last Updated: Monday, December 24, 2007 | 12:16 PM ET

CBC News

The jazz odyssey is over for Oscar Peterson: the Canadian known globally as one of the most spectacularly talented musicians ever to play jazz piano has died at age 82.

Peterson died Sunday night in at his home in Mississauga, Ont., CBC News has confirmed.

Renowned for his speed and virtuosity as a pianist, Peterson — who was born in Montreal and later made Toronto his home — made hundreds of recordings in his career, even after a stroke in 1993 disabled his left hand.

Over the years, his recording and performing partners included such stars as Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Louie Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Nat King Cole and Stan Getz.

Some of Peterson's most legendary works came after he teamed up to form the Oscar Peterson Trio in 1953. The trio created such classic recordings as 1955's At Zardis, 1956's At the Stratford Shakespearean Festival, and 1957's At Concertgebouw.

He formed another classic piano-guitar-bass trio in the 1970s with guitarist Joe Pass and Danish-born bassist Niels Pedersen.

Lived for music's 'moments of great beauty'

Peterson reveled in the kind of improvisation he could perform with talented musicians, recalling in a 2005 interview how well he worked with his late friend Pedersen.

"The minute we get to the sections where he's featured, I take no prisoners! I like to take liberties, and he's got to be right there to hear where I'm going. We still open doors in the improvisation for one another to develop."

He also loved the competitive nature of this kind of jazz and the unexpected pleasures that could emerge in live performances.

"There is always the chance for moments of great beauty to emerge," he said.

Among the dozens of awards and acknowledgements over the decades, Peterson racked up seven Grammy awards, including the Grammy for Lifetime Achievement in 1997; received an International Jazz Hall of Fame Award in the same year; and was named a Companion of the Order of Canada, its highest level.

His autobiography, A Jazz Odyssey: The Life of Oscar Peterson, was written in collaboration with jazz journalist Richard Palmer.

Early success

Born in Montreal in Aug. 15, 1925, Peterson was the son of a Canadian National railroad porter.

Though he started playing piano at age five, taught by his sister Daisy, Peterson credited his introduction to jazz to his older brother Fred, who died of tuberculosis at age 16.

Oscar continued his studies under Paul de Marky, a Hungarian-born teacher who had studied with the famous Hungarian pianist and composer Franz Liszt.

Peterson said he learned how to use a piano to full potential from de Marky and from listening to jazz greats.

"I never tried to sound like a trumpet or a clarinet," he once said an interview with the Wall Street Journal.

"I was taught to respect it for what it was: a piano. And it spoke with a certain voice. And that was what I was determined to bring forward."

At age 15, Peterson won first prize in a CBC radio talent show and was invited to play weekly on the Montreal station CKAC.

He soon had other offers to play on radio. By 1942, Peterson was performing with one of Canada's leading big bands, the Johnny Holmes Orchestra.

He came up against the colour bar early in his career, with some hotels threatening to prevent him from playing and radio hosts introducing him as "a coloured boy with amazing fingers."

About this time his father, Daniel Peterson, brought home a recording by Art Tatum, then considered the best jazz pianist of his day. Peterson later recalled how Tatum gave him a new pinnacle to aim for.

"Of course I was just about flattened…I swear, I didn't play piano for two months afterward, I was so intimidated," Peterson said.

Later, Tatum came to regard Peterson as heir to his crown as the king of jazz pianists.

Carnegie Hall

In 1949, Peterson got another big break. The story goes that jazz promoter Norman Granz was in a taxi on the way to the airport in Montreal when he heard a live Peterson broadcast on the radio, and insisted the driver turn around and drive him to the club where the broadcast originated.

Granz signed Peterson up for a gig at Carnegie Hall in New York with some of the biggest names in jazz.

According to a report in Down Beat magazine, at Carnegie Hall Peterson "stopped the concert dead cold in its tracks."

Granz became one of Peterson's closest friends and his manager. Peterson began to build international renown, touring in the 1950s with Jazz at the Philharmonic to Japan, Hong Kong, Australia and the Philippines.

Birth of a legendary trio

In 1953, Peterson formed the Oscar Peterson Trio, joining up with bassist Ray Brown, and then guitarist Herb Ellis. They became one of the hardest-working trios in jazz, touring the U.S. under Ganz's management.

"When the group gets hot you take a lot of chances and pull a lot of things off when you play it live that you might not do before a microphone, " Brown recalled in a 1975 interview with CBC Radio.

"When you have a group that operates five days a week in nightclubs…you had to be on your toes. [Oscar said] we want to be able to play any song and make it work."

Peterson moved to Toronto in 1958 and kept a base in Canada throughout the rest of his career.

A year later, he and several other musicians founded the Advanced School of Contemporary Music, a school to teach jazz, but it lasted only a few years.

Peterson continued to perform throughout the world, even behind the Iron Curtain in Ljubljana, then part of Yugoslavia.

As a composer, his best-known work is likely 1964's Canadiana Suite, each track of which was inspired by a different region. Peterson called it "my musical portrait of the Canada I love."

He made the first of many solo recordings in the late 1960s and often played solo in the 1970s and 1980s.  He also began voice recording in 1965 on With Respect to Nat.

He composed film and television scores, winning a Genie film award for best film score in 1978, for The Silent Partner.

Peterson built a recording studio in his Mississauga, Ont., home so that he could experiment with electronic keyboard and sound equipment.

The struggle to overcome a stroke

In 1993, while performing at the Blue Note club in New York, Peterson noticed a numbness in his left hand, and doctors diagnosed a stroke.

Peterson was depressed by the loss of ability and stopped playing for two years. "The first day I sat at the piano with my therapist, I had tears in my eyes," he told the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

But he said fellow musicians encouraged him to continue playing, initially with the right hand only and eventually with a slightly disabled left hand. Playing with a group was "the best therapy of all," he said.

He continued to travel and perform, still packing in the audiences. His 80th birthday in 2006 was celebrated with a concert featuring Diana Krall and a new postage stamp honouring him.

Peterson has received numerous citations for best jazz pianist from Contemporary Keyboard and Down Beat; was named an officer of the Order of Arts and Letters in France; and was named honorary chancellor at York University in Toronto.

His life was showcased in two films, Oscar Peterson: Music in the Key of Oscar in 1995 and Oscar Peterson: The Life of a Legend in 1996.

Over the years, Peterson has been a supporter of young Canadian artists, saying he admires the work of fellow Canadian Oliver Jones and appearing in 2006 at a school in Mississauga named after him to hear a school concert.

"It's very moving to work with them and to play with them," he told CBC Television at that appearance. "I want to say again I'm a softy for youngsters. I'm so glad to be here with them. "

Peterson has been married four times and has six children from his first and third marriages — Lyn, Sharon, Gay, Oscar Jr., Norman and Joel — and one daughter, Celine, with his fourth wife, Kelly.


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A good man, a great musician 
We will remember him!

A Jazz great has passed away, may he rest in peace.