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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 has the most prodigious facility of anyone I’ve ever heard in jazz,” says Gene Lees, author of a 1988 biography of Peterson, The Will to Swing. “It continued to evolve, and became more controlled and subtle—until he had his stroke.”

Born in 1925, Oscar Emmanuel Peterson was one of five children of Daniel and Olive Peterson. His father, a train porter and avid classical music fan, was from the Virgin Islands, and his mother, a homemaker who’d also worked as a maid, from the British West Indies. Oscar began playing the piano at age 5 and the trumpet the next year. His older sister Daisy, who would become a renowned piano teacher, worked with him in his early years. But it was his brother Fred, a deeply gifted pianist six years older than Oscar, who introduced him to jazz. The family was devastated when Fred died of tuberculosis at age 16. To this day Peterson insists that Fred was one of the most important influences in his musical life, and that if Fred had lived, he would have been the famous jazz pianist and Oscar would have settled for being his manager.

During their high-school years, Oscar and Daisy studied with Paul de Marky, a noted music teacher who’d apprenticed with a student of the 19th-century Hungarian composer and pianist Franz Liszt. The link seems significant: Liszt, like Peterson, was sometimes criticized for composing music that only he could play because of his agility and sheer technical genius. Peterson, under de Marky’s tutelage, began to find his crisply swinging style.

Peterson was still a teenager when he had what he calls his first “bruising” with Art Tatum, considered by many the father of jazz piano. “I was getting perhaps a little full of myself, you know, playing for the girls at school, thinking I was quite something,” Peterson recalls. “And my father returned from one of his trips with a record. He said, ‘You think you’re so great. Why don’t you put it on?’ So I did. And of course I was just about flattened. I said, ‘That’s got to be two people playing!’ But of course it wasn’t, it was just Tatum. I swear, I didn’t play piano for two months afterward, I was so intimidated.” Only a few years later, Art Tatum himself would hear Peterson play live with one of his early trios. After the show, he buttonholed him. “It’s not your time yet,” the great man said. “It’s my time. You’re next.”

In the summer of 1949, as the story goes, Norman Granz—one of jazz’s most important producers—was in a Montreal taxicab headed for the airport when he heard Peterson’s trio playing live on the radio from the city’s Alberta Lounge. He told the cabbie to turn around and drive him to the club. Granz then invited Peterson to appear at a Carnegie Hall performance by his Jazz at the Philharmonic all-star band. Peterson accepted. As a Canadian, he didn’t have a work visa, so Granz planted him in the audience, then brought him onstage unannounced. Peterson stunned the audience playing “Tenderly” accompanied only by Ray Brown on bass. They received a standing ovation.

News of the dazzling debut traveled quickly. Peterson had “stopped” the concert “dead cold in its tracks,” Downbeat reported, adding that he “displayed a flashy right hand” and “scared some of the local modern minions by playing bop ideas in his left hand, which is distinctly not the common practice.” Peterson began touring with Granz’s band, and he soon formed his renowned trios, featuring Ray Brown on bass and first Barney Kessel and then Herb Ellis on guitar. In 1959, Peterson and Brown were joined by drummer Ed Thigpen. Which of the Peterson-led combos was the greatest is a matter of spirited musicological debate. Peterson himself says he doesn’t have a favorite group or even album, though he guesses that his 1956 At the Stratford Shakespearean Festival, with Ellis and Brown, is his bestselling recording.

Peterson, now 79, is serene, soft-spoken and wry. When he chuckles, which he frequently does, his whole body curves inward, his shoulders shake and a huge grin explodes on his face. He is elaborately courteous, in the manner of men and women of an earlier era, and full of memories. “Let me tell you a story about Dizzy Gillespie,” he says, recalling his years on the road in the 1950s. “Dizzy was wonderful. What a joy. We loved each other. Dizzy’s way of telling me he enjoyed what I did was, he’d come backstage and say, ‘You know what? You’re crazy.’ Anyway, we were traveling down South, in some of the bigoted areas. So it was two o’clock in the morning, or something like that, and we pulled up to one of those roadside diners. And I looked, and there was the famous sign: No Negroes. And the deal was, we all had duos or trios of friendship, so one of the Caucasian cats would say, ‘What do you want me to get you?’ And they’d go in, and they wouldn’t eat in there, they’d order and come back on the bus and eat with us. But Dizzy gets up and walks off the bus and goes in there. And we’re all saying, ‘Oh my God, that’s the last we’ll see of him.’ And he sits down at the counter—we could see this whole thing 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 Dizzy says, ‘I don’t blame you, I don’t eat ’em. I’ll have a steak.’ That was Dizzy exactly. And do you know what? He got served.”

In 1965, Peterson recorded Oscar Peterson Sings Nat King Cole. “That album was made under duress,” Peterson recalls. “Norman Granz talked me into doing it. And I’ll tell you a story about that. Nat Cole came in to hear me in New York one night. And he came up and said to me, ‘Look, I’ll make you a bargain. I won’t play the piano if you won’t sing.’ ” Peterson cracks himself up. “I love Nat so much. I learned so much from him.”

Over the years, the criticism that would dog Peterson more than any other was that his virtuosity, the source of his greatness, masked a lack of true feeling. Areviewer in the French magazine Le Jazz Hot wrote in 1969 that Peterson “has all the requisites of one of the great jazz musicians. . . . Save that élan, that poesy, . . . that profound sense of the blues, all that is difficult to define but makes the grandeur of an Armstrong, a Tatum, a Bud Powell, a Parker, a Coltrane or a Cecil Taylor.”

Peterson fans and many fellow musicians insist it’s a bad rap. “Oscar plays so cleanly that nobody can believe he’s a jazz guy,” says jazz pianist Jon Weber. “Maybe the expectation is that jazz is going to be sloppy or clumsy, but it’s not. There are going to be times when a down-and-dirty blues is exactly what you’ve gotta do, like this—” he pauses and lays down a riff on his piano that heats up the phone lines—“and it might sound sloppy to the uninitiated. But Oscar plays with such flawless technique that it makes people think, ‘Well, it’s too clean to be jazz.’ What has a guy got to do to convince them that he’s playing with emotion? From the first four bars, I hear his heart and soul in every note.”

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