Return of a Virtuoso

Following a debilitating stroke, the incomparable jazz pianist Oscar Peterson had to start over

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Morgenstern compares the criticism of Peterson’s work to the complaint that Mozart’s music had “too many notes.” “Just virtuoso displays of technical facility are relatively shallow and meaningless,” Morgenstern says. “But with Oscar, it’s not like that. He obviously has such a great command of the instrument that he can do almost anything. The thing about Oscar is that he enjoys that so much, he has so much fun doing it. So sure, he’s all over the keyboard, but there’s such a zest for it, such a joie de vivre, that it’s a joy to partake of that.”

Herb Ellis once said of Peterson, “I’ve never played with anybody who had more depth and more emotion and feeling in his playing. He can play so hot and so deep and earthy that it just shakes you when you’re playing with him. Ray and I have come off the stand just shook up. I mean, he is heavy.”

In an interview, Downbeat’s contributing editor, John McDonough, once asked Peterson about a critic’s complaint that he was a “cold machine.” “

So sue me,” Peterson said. “I am the kind of piano player I am. I want to address the keyboard in a certain way. I want to be able to do anything my mind tells me to do.”

Summer 1993. Peterson sits at the kitchen table in his house in Mississauga. His daughter Celine, then a toddler, sits across from him, shooting toy trucks at him across the table. He catches them with his right hand. Celine says, “No, Daddy! With the other hand! Use your other hand!”

Peterson says it was the darkest time of his life. The frustration of daily physical therapy wore on him, and when he sat down at the piano, that full sound, his sound, no longer filled the room. His left hand lay mostly limp on the keyboard.

Not long after he was stricken, the bassist Dave Young called Peterson and announced that he was coming over with his instrument. Peterson said, “Dave, I can’t play.” “

What do you mean, you can’t play?” “

I can’t play no more.”

“You’re gonna play. I’m coming over.”


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