Return of a Virtuoso

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

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Young came over, and Peterson remembers, “he called all these tunes that required both hands. He said, ‘See, there’s nothing wrong with you. You should play more often.’ ”

After about 14 months of intensive physical therapy and practice, one of the world’s greatest jazz pianists made his comeback debut at his daughter’s elementary school. Soon he moved on to local clubs. “The piano field’s very competitive,” Peterson says. “And at different times, players would come to hear me, and that little gnome would tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘So-and-so’s out there. Are you going to miss tonight?’ ”

Benny Green, a pianist influenced by Peterson’s work, “wouldn’t accept me walking away. He said, ‘If you’ve got one finger, you’ve got something to say, so don’t even go that way. We can’t accept that loss.’ I just figured, take me as I am. If this is what I’m going to be, then this is what I’m going to be. If I couldn’t express myself with whatever is left—and I’m not saying my playing is what it used to be— but if I can’t express myself, I wouldn’t be up there. If I can’t speak to you in a discernible voice, I wouldn’t bother having the conversation.”

“Of course, Norman [Granz] was alive at that time, and he’d call 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 give me that sob story. I don’t want to hear it. When are you going to play?’ ” Granz, Peterson’s manager and longtime friend, wanted to book him, and Oscar finally agreed. “I distinctly remember standing in the wings at a concert in Vienna,” Peterson says. “And I had that last wave of doubt.” Niels Pederson, his bassist, asked how he was doing. Peterson said,

“Niels, I don’t know if I can come up with this one.”

“ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘now’s a hell of a time to back out. You better play, because I’m going to be running up one side of you and down the other 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 felt Norman’s arms around me, and he said, ‘I’ve never been more proud of you than I am tonight.’ ”

Peterson slowly makes his way into the sunroom at the back of his house. The room is alive with afternoon light and crowded with plants and flowers. Elsewhere in the house are Peterson’s wife of 18 years, Kelly, and their 13-year-old daughter, Celine. He also has six children from two of his other three marriages, and he relishes his role as father and grandfather. His family, he says, is the reason he keeps playing— that, he adds, and “the man upstairs.”

He continues to tour and compose, he says, because he loves the piano. “It’s such a vast instrument I play. I approach it with a very humble attitude—you know, are we going to be able to talk today? I believe that this music is a very important part of our worldly culture. I’ve always believed that. And because of the improvisational nature of jazz, and the emotional aspect of it, I believe it’s one of the most truthful voices in the arts. I don’t see myself as a legend. I think of myself as a player that has emotional moments, musically speaking, that I want to bring forward. And jazz gives me the opportunity to do that.”

Downbeat’s McDonough recalls seeing Peterson perform after the stroke: “I thought he was performing wonderfully. And it wasn’t until the second or third concert that I happened to see that he was not using his left hand. But his right hand was working so hard, and giving so much, it just didn’t occur to me that I was listening essentially to a one-handed pianist. With all the accolades that came to Peterson during his prime years, it seemed to me that even greater accolades should be afforded him, because he could do what he could do with one hand. He had skill to burn. He lost half his resources, and it’s astonishing what he can still produce.”

These days Peterson spends most of his musical time composing, a process that was not hindered by his stroke and that is aided by his love of gadgets. He has a studio in his home, and often starts out “doodling” on keyboards hooked up to computers. “Most of my writing is spontaneous,” he says. “In jazz, it comes directly from your inner feelings at that exact moment in time,” he says. “I don’t necessarily start out with anything. Most of it is built on one thing—emotion. And I say that not being maudlin. Inwardly, I’m thinking of something in particular, something I like or something that’s getting to me. And at some point it comes out musically.”


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