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Return of a Virtuoso

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

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He was playing “Blues Etude” when it happened. It was the first show of the night at New York City’s Blue Note club. May 1993. Oscar Peterson, then 67 and one of the greatest jazz pianists ever, found his left hand flubbing the boogie-woogie passages that climax the arrangement. He brushed the difficulty off, completed the set and went backstage with the rest of the trio.

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The bassist, Ray Brown, who’d been playing with Peterson off and on for four decades, took him aside and asked if something was wrong. Peterson said it was nothing. Still, he felt dizzy, and he found his dressing room going in and out of focus. The second set was worse. He fumbled again, his left hand stiff and tingling, and now he couldn’t play the notes he’d managed just an hour before. For the first time in an international career that had begun with a surprise debut at Carnegie Hall at age 24, Peterson—known for such spectacular shows of keyboard mastery that Duke Ellington called him the “maharajah of the piano”—struggled to play

 

After Peterson had returned to his home in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, Ontario, he saw a doctor and learned that he had had a stroke, which had rendered his left side nearly immobile. It seemed that he would never perform again, and he says he soon became depressed. His ailment was all the more poignant given that his greatest asset, in addition to his astonishing dexterity, was his ability to do things with his left hand that most pianists could only dream of. Once, while performing, he reportedly leaned over and lit a cigarette for a woman in the front row with his right hand while his left scampered up and down the ivories without missing a beat.\

 

Few jazz pianists have been as widely celebrated. Anative of Montreal, Peterson received his nation’s highest cultural honor, the Order of Canada, in 1972. He was inducted into the International Academy of Jazz Hall of Fame in 1996. Though he dropped out of high school (to pursue music), he has been granted 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 achievement award, and he has won more Downbeat magazine popularity polls than any other pianist.

 

His swinging, precise, clear-as-spring-water virtuosity has been recorded on upwards of 400 albums, and the people he has played with over the decades—from Louis Armstrong to Charlie Parker to Ella Fitzgerald—are jazz immortals. Peterson “came in as a young man when the great masters were still active,” says Dan Morgenstern, director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at RutgersUniversity. “He’s a living link to what some might consider the golden age of jazz. It’s not that there aren’t many wonderful young jazz musicians around today, and the music is still very much alive. But in every art form, there are times when it reaches a peak, and that was the case with jazz at that particular time. And Oscar got in on that and he contributed to it.”

 

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