He was arena “Blues Etude” aback it happened. It was the aboriginal appearance of the night at New York City’s Dejected Agenda club. May 1993. Oscar Peterson, afresh 67 and one of the greatest applesauce pianists ever, begin his larboard duke flubbing the boogie-woogie passages that acme the arrangement. He brushed the adversity off, completed the set and went backstage with the blow of the trio.
The bassist, Ray Brown, who’d been arena with Peterson off and on for four decades, took him abreast and asked if article was wrong. Peterson said it was nothing. Still, he acquainted dizzy, and he begin his bathrobe allowance activity in and out of focus. The additional set was worse. He fumbled again, his larboard duke annealed and tingling, and now he couldn’t comedy the addendum he’d managed aloof an hour before. For the aboriginal time in an all-embracing career that had amorphous with a abruptness admission at Carnegie Hall at age 24, Peterson—known for such amazing shows of keyboard adeptness that Duke Ellington alleged him the “maharajah of the piano”—struggled to play.
After Peterson had alternate to his home in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, Ontario, he saw a doctor and abstruse that he had had a stroke, which had rendered his larboard ancillary about immobile. It seemed that he would never accomplish again, and he says he anon became depressed. His ailment was all the added agitating accustomed that his greatest asset, in accession to his amazing dexterity, was his adeptness to do things with his larboard duke that best pianists could alone dream of. Once, while performing, he reportedly leaned over and lit a cigarette for a woman in the advanced row with his appropriate duke while his larboard scampered up and bottomward the ivories afterwards missing a beat.
Few applesauce pianists acquire been as broadly celebrated. Anative of Montreal, Peterson accustomed his nation’s accomplished cultural honor, the Adjustment of Canada, in 1972. He was inducted into the All-embracing Academy of Applesauce Hall of Fame in 1996. Admitting he alone out of aerial academy (to accompany music), he has been accustomed 13 honorary doctorates and, in 1991, was appointed Chancellor of York University in Toronto. He has garnered 11 Grammy nominations and seven wins, including a lifetime accomplishment award, and he has won added Downbeat annual acceptance acclamation than any added pianist.
His swinging, precise, clear-as-spring-water adroitness has been recorded on upwards of 400 albums, and the bodies he has played with over the decades—from Louis Armstrong to Charlie Parker to Ella Fitzgerald—are applesauce immortals. Peterson “came in as a adolescent man aback the abundant masters were still active,” says Dan Morgenstern, administrator of the Institute of Applesauce Studies at RutgersUniversity. “He’s a active articulation to what some ability accede the aureate age of jazz. It’s not that there aren’t abounding admirable adolescent applesauce musicians about today, and the music is still actual abundant alive. But in every art form, there are times aback it alcove a peak, and that was the case with applesauce at that accurate time. And Oscar got in on that and he contributed to it.”
“He has the best biggy ability of anyone I’ve anytime heard in jazz,” says Gene Lees, columnist of a 1988 adventures of Peterson, The Will to Swing. “It connected to evolve, and became added controlled and subtle—until he had his stroke.”
Born in 1925, Oscar Emmanuel Peterson was one of bristles accouchement of Daniel and Olive Peterson. His father, a alternation porter and ardent classical music fan, was from the Virgin Islands, and his mother, a homemaker who’d additionally formed as a maid, from the British West Indies. Oscar began arena the piano at age 5 and the trumpet the abutting year. His beforehand sister Daisy, who would become a acclaimed piano teacher, formed with him in his aboriginal years. But it was his brother Fred, a acutely able pianist six years beforehand than Oscar, who alien him to jazz. The ancestors was devastated aback Fred died of tuberculosis at age 16. To this day Peterson insists that Fred was one of the best important influences in his agreeable life, and that if Fred had lived, he would acquire been the acclaimed applesauce pianist and Oscar would acquire acclimatized for actuality his manager.
During their high-school years, Oscar and Daisy advised with Paul de Marky, a acclaimed music abecedary who’d apprenticed with a apprentice of the 19th-century Hungarian artisan and pianist Franz Liszt. The articulation seems significant: Liszt, like Peterson, was sometimes criticized for basic music that alone he could comedy because of his activity and arduous abstruse genius. Peterson, beneath de Marky’s tutelage, began to acquisition his crisply accustomed style.
Peterson was still a jailbait aback he had what he calls his aboriginal “bruising” with Art Tatum, advised by abounding the ancestor of applesauce piano. “I was accepting conceivably a little abounding of myself, you know, arena for the girls at school, cerebration I was absolutely something,” Peterson recalls. “And my ancestor alternate from one of his trips with a record. He said, ‘You anticipate you’re so great. Why don’t you put it on?’ So I did. And of advance I was aloof about flattened. I said, ‘That’s got to be two bodies playing!’ But of advance it wasn’t, it was aloof Tatum. I swear, I didn’t comedy piano for two months afterward, I was so intimidated.” Alone a few years later, Art Tatum himself would apprehend Peterson comedy animate with one of his aboriginal trios. Afterwards the show, he buttonholed him. “It’s not your time yet,” the abundant man said. “It’s my time. You’re next.”
In the summer of 1949, as the adventure goes, Norman Granz—one of jazz’s best important producers—was in a Montreal taxicab headed for the airport aback he heard Peterson’s leash arena animate on the radio from the city’s Alberta Lounge. He told the cabbie to about-face about and drive him to the club. Granz afresh arrive Peterson to arise at a Carnegie Hall achievement by his Applesauce at the Philharmonic all-star band. Peterson accepted. As a Canadian, he didn’t acquire a assignment visa, so Granz buried him in the audience, afresh brought him onstage unannounced. Peterson abashed the admirers arena “Tenderly” accompanied alone by Ray Brown on bass. They accustomed a continuing ovation.
News of the admirable admission catholic quickly. Peterson had “stopped” the concert “dead algid in its tracks,” Downbeat reported, abacus that he “displayed a blatant appropriate hand” and “scared some of the bounded avant-garde minions by arena bop account in his larboard hand, which is audibly not the accepted practice.” Peterson began touring with Granz’s band, and he anon formed his acclaimed trios, featuring Ray Brown on bass and aboriginal Barney Kessel and afresh Herb Ellis on guitar. In 1959, Peterson and Brown were abutting by bagman Ed Thigpen. Which of the Peterson-led combos was the greatest is a amount of active musicological debate. Peterson himself says he doesn’t acquire a admired accumulation or alike album, admitting he guesses that his 1956 At the Stratford Shakespearean Festival, with Ellis and Brown, is his bestselling recording.
Peterson, now 79, is serene, affable and wry. Aback he chuckles, which he frequently does, his accomplished anatomy curves inward, his amateur agitate and a huge beam explodes on his face. He is elaborately courteous, in the abode of men and women of an beforehand era, and abounding of memories. “Let me acquaint you a adventure about Addled Gillespie,” he says, abandoning his years on the alley in the 1950s. “Dizzy was wonderful. What a joy. We admired anniversary other. Dizzy’s way of cogent me he enjoyed what I did was, he’d appear backstage and say, ‘You apperceive what? You’re crazy.’ Anyway, we were traveling bottomward South, in some of the biased areas. So it was two o’clock in the morning, or article like that, and we pulled up to one of those roadside diners. And I looked, and there was the acclaimed sign: No Negroes. And the accord was, we all had duos or trios of friendship, so one of the Caucasian bodies would say, ‘What do you appetite me to get you?’ And they’d go in, and they wouldn’t eat in there, they’d adjustment and appear aback on the bus and eat with us. But Addled gets up and walks off the bus and goes in there. And we’re all saying, ‘Oh my God, that’s the aftermost we’ll see of him.’ And he sits bottomward at the counter—we could see this accomplished affair through the window. And the waitress goes over to him. And she says to him, ‘I’m sorry, sir, but we don’t serve Negroes in here.’ And Addled says, ‘I don’t accusation you, I don’t eat ’em. I’ll acquire a steak.’ That was Addled exactly. And do you apperceive what? He got served.”
In 1965, Peterson recorded Oscar Peterson Sings Nat King Cole. “That anthology was fabricated beneath duress,” Peterson recalls. “Norman Granz talked me into accomplishing it. And I’ll acquaint you a adventure about that. Nat Cole came in to apprehend me in New York one night. And he came up and said to me, ‘Look, I’ll accomplish you a bargain. I won’t comedy the piano if you won’t sing.’ ” Peterson cracks himself up. “I adulation Nat so much. I abstruse so abundant from him.”
Over the years, the criticism that would dog Peterson added than any added was that his virtuosity, the antecedent of his greatness, masked a abridgement of accurate feeling. Areviewer in the French annual Le Applesauce Hot wrote in 1969 that Peterson “has all the requisites of one of the abundant applesauce musicians. . . . Save that élan, that poesy, . . . that abstruse faculty of the blues, all that is difficult to ascertain but makes the amplitude of an Armstrong, a Tatum, a Bud Powell, a Parker, a Coltrane or a Cecil Taylor.”
Peterson admirers and abounding adolescent musicians assert it’s a bad rap. “Oscar plays so abundantly that cipher can acquire he’s a applesauce guy,” says applesauce pianist Jon Weber. “Maybe the apprehension is that applesauce is activity to be awkward or clumsy, but it’s not. There are activity to be times aback a down-and-dirty dejection is absolutely what you’ve gotta do, like this—” he pauses and lays bottomward a riff on his piano that heats up the buzz lines—“and it ability complete awkward to the uninitiated. But Oscar plays with such absolute abode that it makes bodies think, ‘Well, it’s too apple-pie to be jazz.’ What has a guy got to do to argue them that he’s arena with emotion? From the aboriginal four bars, I apprehend his affection and body in every note.”
Morgenstern compares the criticism of Peterson’s assignment to the complaint that Mozart’s music had “too abounding notes.” “Just virtuoso displays of abstruse ability are about bank and meaningless,” Morgenstern says. “But with Oscar, it’s not like that. He acutely has such a abundant command of the apparatus that he can do about anything. The affair about Oscar is that he enjoys that so much, he has so abundant fun accomplishing it. So sure, he’s all over the keyboard, but there’s such a bite for it, such a joie de vivre, that it’s a joy to partake of that.”
Herb Ellis already said of Peterson, “I’ve never played with anybody who had added abyss and added affect and activity in his playing. He can comedy so hot and so abysmal and bawdy that it aloof all-overs you aback you’re arena with him. Ray and I acquire appear off the angle aloof befuddled up. I mean, he is heavy.”
In an interview, Downbeat’s accidental editor, John McDonough, already asked Peterson about a critic’s complaint that he was a “cold machine.” “
So sue me,” Peterson said. “I am the affectionate of piano amateur I am. I appetite to abode the keyboard in a assertive way. I appetite to be able to do annihilation my apperception tells me to do.”
Summer 1993. Peterson sits at the kitchen table in his abode in Mississauga. His babe Celine, afresh a toddler, sits beyond from him, cutting toy trucks at him beyond the table. He catches them with his appropriate hand. Celine says, “No, Daddy! With the added hand! Use your added hand!”
Peterson says it was the darkest time of his life. The annoyance of circadian concrete analysis wore on him, and aback he sat bottomward at the piano, that abounding sound, his sound, no best abounding the room. His larboard duke lay mostly bending on the keyboard.
Not continued afterwards he was stricken, the bassist Dave Adolescent alleged Peterson and appear that he was advancing over with his instrument. Peterson said, “Dave, I can’t play.” “
What do you mean, you can’t play?” “
I can’t comedy no more.”
“You’re gonna play. I’m advancing over.”
Young came over, and Peterson remembers, “he alleged all these tunes that appropriate both hands. He said, ‘See, there’s annihilation amiss with you. You should comedy added often.’ ”
After about 14 months of accelerated concrete analysis and practice, one of the world’s greatest applesauce pianists fabricated his improvement admission at his daughter’s elementary school. Anon he confused on to bounded clubs. “The piano field’s actual competitive,” Peterson says. “And at altered times, players would appear to apprehend me, and that little gnome would tap me on the acquire and say, ‘So-and-so’s out there. Are you activity to absence tonight?’ ”
Benny Green, a pianist afflicted by Peterson’s work, “wouldn’t acquire me walking away. He said, ‘If you’ve got one finger, you’ve got article to say, so don’t alike go that way. We can’t acquire that loss.’ I aloof figured, booty me as I am. If this is what I’m activity to be, afresh this is what I’m activity to be. If I couldn’t accurate myself with whatever is left—and I’m not adage my arena is what it acclimated to be— but if I can’t accurate myself, I wouldn’t be up there. If I can’t allege to you in a apparent voice, I wouldn’t bother accepting the conversation.”
“Of course, Norman [Granz] was animate at that time, and he’d alarm me up every day. He’d say, ‘How’re you doing?’ And I’d say, ‘Aw, I don’t know.’ And he’d say, ‘Don’t accord me that sob story. I don’t appetite to apprehend it. Aback are you activity to play?’ ” Granz, Peterson’s administrator and longtime friend, capital to book him, and Oscar assuredly agreed. “I audibly bethink continuing in the wings at a concert in Vienna,” Peterson says. “And I had that aftermost beachcomber of doubt.” Niels Pederson, his bassist, asked how he was doing. Peterson said,
“Niels, I don’t apperceive if I can appear up with this one.”
“ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘now’s a hell of a time to aback out. You bigger play, because I’m activity to be active up one ancillary of you and bottomward the added if you don’t.’ And I managed to get through the concert. We went out to eat afterward, and I was sitting in the restaurant. And I acquainted Norman’s accoutrements about me, and he said, ‘I’ve never been added appreciative of you than I am tonight.’ ”
Peterson boring makes his way into the conservatory at the aback of his house. The allowance is animate with afternoon ablaze and awash with plants and flowers. Elsewhere in the abode are Peterson’s wife of 18 years, Kelly, and their 13-year-old daughter, Celine. He additionally has six accouchement from two of his added three marriages, and he relishes his role as ancestor and grandfather. His family, he says, is the acumen he keeps playing— that, he adds, and “the man upstairs.”
He continues to bout and compose, he says, because he loves the piano. “It’s such a all-inclusive apparatus I play. I access it with a actual apprehensive attitude—you know, are we activity to be able to allocution today? I acquire that this music is a actual important allotment of our carnal culture. I’ve consistently believed that. And because of the improvisational attributes of jazz, and the affecting aspect of it, I acquire it’s one of the best accurate choir in the arts. I don’t see myself as a legend. I anticipate of myself as a amateur that has affecting moments, musically speaking, that I appetite to accompany forward. And applesauce gives me the befalling to do that.”
Downbeat’s McDonough recalls seeing Peterson accomplish afterwards the stroke: “I anticipation he was assuming wonderfully. And it wasn’t until the additional or third concert that I happened to see that he was not application his larboard hand. But his appropriate duke was alive so hard, and giving so much, it aloof didn’t action to me that I was alert about to a one-handed pianist. With all the accolades that came to Peterson during his prime years, it seemed to me that alike greater accolades should be afforded him, because he could do what he could do with one hand. He had accomplishment to burn. He absent bisected his resources, and it’s amazing what he can still produce.”
These canicule Peterson spends best of his agreeable time composing, a action that was not hindered by his accomplishment and that is aided by his adulation of gadgets. He has a flat in his home, and generally starts out “doodling” on keyboards absorbed up to computers. “Most of my autograph is spontaneous,” he says. “In jazz, it comes anon from your close animosity at that exact moment in time,” he says. “I don’t necessarily alpha out with anything. Best of it is congenital on one thing—emotion. And I say that not actuality maudlin. Inwardly, I’m cerebration of article in particular, article I like or article that’s accepting to me. And at some point it comes out musically.”
Peterson’s talents as a composer, which acquire been abundantly overshadowed by his strengths as a performer, began with a dare. “My bassist Niels Pederson said, ‘Why don’t you address something?’ I said, ‘Now?’ He said, ‘Yeah! You’re declared to be so big and bad. Go ahead.’ I ample he was accepting a little above so I’d face this challenge. So I wrote ‘The Adulation Ballad’ for my wife.” Likewise for Canadiana Suite, which he recorded in 1964. “That was started on a bet,” he says, chuckling. “I had been messing with Ray Brown”—Peterson is a belled applied joker, and Brown was one of his admired victims— “I would go abduct his belt links and what acquire you. And he said, ‘Why don’t you accomplish acceptable use of your time instead of messing with me? Why don’t you go address something?’ I said, ‘What do you appetite me to write?’ I was in a actual condescending mood. He said, ‘You know, Duke [Ellington] has accounting a “this suite” and a “that suite,” why don’t you go address a suite?’ I said, ‘OK, I’ll be back.’ ” Peterson chuckles. “The aboriginal allotment I wrote was ‘Wheatland,’ and I started on ‘Blues of the Prairies.’ And I alleged Ray over. He said, ‘Well, aback are you activity to accomplishment it?’ I said, ‘Ray, we gotta go to work! I would, but’—and he said, ‘Well, accomplishment the so-and-so thing. Two pieces is not a suite. Canada’s a big, big country. What’re you gonna do about that?’ ” Asweeping agreeable brainwork on the amplitude of the Canadian landscape, Canadiana was hailed by one analyzer as a “musical journey.”
Summer 2004. Tonight Peterson is decked out in a bluespangled tux with glassy lapels and a bow tie, belt links the admeasurement of quarters, and dejected suede shoes. The admirers is on its anxiety the moment he circuit the bend and active slowly, painfully, assimilate the date at the allegorical Birdland in New York City. Peterson nods to the auspicious crowd. Gripping the Boesendorfer piano as he goes, he cool and assuredly settles himself afore the keyboard. With bass, drums and guitar abaft him, he glides into “Love Ballad.” The allowance seems to cool with a blow of pleasure. Actuality in New York, area he emerged as an absolutely new force in applesauce bisected a aeon before, Peterson sweeps through a set of ballads and swing, Dixieland and blues, bringing the army to its anxiety as he closes with “Sweet Georgia Brown.” Backstage amid sets, Peterson eats ice cream. “Whew!” he says. “Well, it got actual heavy. I had a ball.”
As he makes his way onstage for his additional set, Peterson cool and nods to the audience, which stands and acclaim the additional he circuit the corner. He settles himself assimilate the piano bench, shoots a glance at Niels Pederson, and the music rolls into the allowance like a wave: the slow, abiding lick of Alvin Queen’s besom on the snare, the beating articulation of the bass thrumming up from the depths, the easy, adroit course of Ulf Wakenius’ guitar, and then, like raindrops on water, the aerial complete of Oscar’s affected appropriate duke on the keys. Afterwards he is asked what he played in the additional set. He chuckles, saying, “Anything I could remember.”
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