"Oscar Peterson is a mother fucking piano player!" Ray Charles, in Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues - Piano Blues (2003)
A quick entry on this Christmas morning as sad news came to my attention last night, Oscar Peterson passed away at the age of 82 in his home of Toronto Canada. Peterson is one of those piano players who was instrumental in popularizing Jazz, and I do mean Jazz with a capital J. Peterson didn't bring you any of that diluted background wall paper drivel that is sometimes called Jazz. Peterson was the real deal, one of the few original Jazz giants still walking around. Like Jazz legends Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Peterson came up at the dawn of Bop. An approach to Jazz that would revolutionize the genre, lightening fast and highly improvised with a heavy doses of Swing. Cause it don't mean a thing if it aint.
Born August 15th, 1925 Oscar Peterson grew up in Little Burgundy, Montreal. An African American neighborhood where many had found refuge for the harsh and segregated realities of the United States. Oscar first touch down on the keys at the age of five, barely able to walk straight he began on his road to greatness. At seven tuberculosis made it so that his only focus was the piano as the illness isolated him from the world. From Canadian radio Oscar would soon make the jump to Jazz Mekka NY, or should I say Harlem. He made his first recordings as a band leader in 1945, near the end of World War II. No mean feat for a twenty year old in a city with such stiff competition. Harlem truly was the place that drew the greatest and you'd better have your shit together if you were going for the scrapple from the Apple. Inspired by Art Tatum and later Nat King Cole, Oscar was more than ready, The Brown Bomber of Boogie Woogie had developed his own style when others were still stretching their fingers reaching for that chord.
His distinct rollicking and versatile yet accessible style would soon land him in a recording deal with Verve, one of Jazz's greatest labels. Although Oscar was part of the same movement as Bird and Gillespie he was never quite the ground breaking artist, more the great translator and communicator of Jazz. Oscar was as much at home in small combo's of his own as he was in Count Basie's big band. Oscar was a welcome player on the scene, working with almost anybody who was somebody throughout his career. His name pops up on session dates from Billie Holiday to Stan Getz, from Benny Carter to Anita O'day. In those sessions Oscar had the talent to coach the tune, make it tangible through his licks on the piano, subtle where he needed to be, mind blowing with fingers rolling high speed down the keys if asked for. Peterson was as much Jazz's great show man as he was dedicated to the art form. That ability made for Oscar being key in breaking Jazz to a much wider audience and a talent of who's likes we're not likely to see anytime soon again.