Return of a Virtuoso

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

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Peterson’s talents as a composer, which have been largely overshadowed by his strengths as a performer, began with a dare. “My bassist Niels Pederson said, ‘Why don’t you write something?’ I said, ‘Now?’ He said, ‘Yeah! You’re supposed to be so big and bad. Go ahead.’ I figured he was getting a little uppity so I’d face this challenge. So I wrote ‘The Love 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 notorious practical joker, and Brown was one of his favorite victims— “I would go steal his cuff links and what have you. And he said, ‘Why don’t you make good use of your time instead of messing with me? Why don’t you go write something?’ I said, ‘What do you want me to write?’ I was in a very cavalier mood. He said, ‘You know, Duke [Ellington] has written a “this suite” and a “that suite,” why don’t you go write a suite?’ I said, ‘OK, I’ll be back.’ ” Peterson chuckles. “The first piece I wrote was ‘Wheatland,’ and I started on ‘Blues of the Prairies.’ And I called Ray over. He said, ‘Well, when are you going to finish it?’ I said, ‘Ray, we gotta go to work! I would, but’—and he said, ‘Well, finish 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 musical meditation on the grandeur of the Canadian landscape, Canadiana was hailed by one critic as a “musical journey.”

Summer 2004. Tonight Peterson is decked out in a bluespangled tux with satin lapels and a bow tie, cuff links the size of quarters, and blue suede shoes. The audience is on its feet the moment he rounds the corner and heads slowly, painfully, onto the stage at the legendary Birdland in New York City. Peterson nods to the cheering crowd. Gripping the Boesendorfer piano as he goes, he grins and finally settles himself before the keyboard. With bass, drums and guitar behind him, he glides into “Love Ballad.” The room seems to swell with a sigh of pleasure. Here in New York, where he emerged as an entirely new force in jazz half a century before, Peterson sweeps through a set of ballads and swing, Dixieland and blues, bringing the crowd to its feet as he closes with “Sweet Georgia Brown.” Backstage between sets, Peterson eats ice cream. “Whew!” he says. “Well, it got very heavy. I had a ball.”

As he makes his way onstage for his second set, Peterson grins and nods to the audience, which stands and cheers the second he rounds the corner. He settles himself onto the piano bench, shoots a glance at Niels Pederson, and the music rolls into the room like a wave: the slow, steady lick of Alvin Queen’s brush on the snare, the resonant voice of the bass thrumming up from the depths, the easy, rhythmic tide of Ulf Wakenius’ guitar, and then, like raindrops on water, the delicate sound of Oscar’s elegant right hand on the keys. Later he is asked what he played in the second set. He chuckles, saying, “Anything I could remember.”


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