Born August 15, 1925, in Montreal, Quebec, Canada; son of Daniel (a sleeping-car porter) and Kathleen Olivia John Peterson; married Lillie Fraser, 1944 (divorced); married Sandra King, 1966 (divorced 1976); married Charlotte Huber, 1977 (divorced); married wife Kelly, c. 1991; children: (first marriage) Lyn, Sharon, Gay, Oscar Jr., Norman; (third marriage) Joel; (fourth marriage) Celine. Education: Studied with Hungarian classical pianist Paul de Marky, beginning c. 1939. Addresses: Office-- Regal Recordings, Ltd., 2421 Hammond Rd., Mississauga, Ontario, Canada L5K 1T3.

Since bursting onto the international music scene in the late 1940s, Oscar Peterson has become one of the most phenomenally successful of all jazz artists. The first Canadian-born jazz pianist to achieve worldwide fame, he is one of the most decorated of contemporary musicians, with seven Grammy awards, ten honorary doctorates, and dozens of prizes and medals. Enjoying perhaps the greatest popularity of any jazz musician of his generation, Peterson's admirers among listeners, critics, and musicians are legion; attested Bob Doerschuk in Contemporary Keyboard, "The history of Oscar Peterson is a study in superlatives." And when Patricia O'Haire of the New York Daily News bluntly called Peterson "the best the jazz piano has to offer," she echoed the opinions of many of Peterson's fans.

One of the most remarkable features of Peterson's long career has been his ability to capture a huge audience without compromising his artistic integrity. Throughout his life he has remained dedicated to the high standards he set for himself as a youngster--and has never altered them to humor popular taste. Proof of this is found in his somewhat aloof stage persona, for as a performer he is far more concerned with his craft than with his audience; indeed, he once told Down Beat' s John McDonough, "My audience has nothing to do with anything I do when I'm on stage." And though he may not cater to his public's taste or mood, Peterson demands the utmost respect from his listeners and has been known to walk off a stage when he found an audience noisy or distracting.

Peterson has always displayed a reverence for jazz history in his piano style; as Josef Woodward wrote in Down Beat, "Few pianists have so adeptly combined technical prowess with tradition-reverent poetry." Part of this tradition is the blues, never far distant while Peterson is performing. As he told Doerschuk, "A jazz phrase to me can't be a jazz phrase without some type of blues feeling to it."

Another of Peterson's ties to tradition is the debt he owes earlier jazz pianists, especially Art Tatum. As a youngster Peterson heard Tatum on records; he was so much in awe of the pianist that, clearly intimidated, he gave up piano for an entire month. His first meeting with Tatum, in the early 1950s, was in fact a terrifying experience; as he told Len Lyons of Contemporary Keyboard, "I was totally frightened of this man and his tremendous talent. It's like a lion; you're scared to death, but it's such a beautiful animal, you want to come up close and hear it roar." The two pianists nonetheless became friends, and one can still hear Peterson's link with his idol in his harmonic inventiveness and radiant virtuosity.

Peterson was born in Montreal in 1925 and was introduced to music by his father, a porter on the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Daniel Peterson, an amateur musician himself, insisted that each of his five children be exposed to music, and he started Oscar on both piano and trumpet at the age of five. However, after Oscar suffered a bout with tuberculosis at age seven, he concentrated on piano alone. A strict disciplinarian, Daniel Peterson would give each of his children assignments before he left for a trip on the railway; as Oscar told his biographer Gene Lees, "My dad would leave and he would give us each a task, pianistically. You had to know this, you had to know that.... There were no ifs, ands and buts. Have it together. It was that simple."

No doubt Oscar derived much of his sense of responsibility and dedication to his art from his father. He began practicing continuously all day long; as he told Lees, "I practiced from nine a.m. to noon, took an hour off for lunch, practiced from one to six in the afternoon, then went to dinner, and went back to the piano about seven-thirty. I'd keep practicing until my mother would come in and drag me away from it so the family could get some sleep." It was in these marathon sessions that Peterson cultivated his technique, a prerequisite to the service of his brilliant musical imagination.

At the age of 14, Peterson took up studies with Hungarian classical pianist Paul de Marky. Peterson fondly recalled the pianist as an open-minded teacher who, unlike many piano teachers of the time, encouraged his pupil's interest in jazz; Peterson told Contemporary Keyboard' s Doerschuk, "He would have admiration for what I did at times, he would have disdain at other times, but at the end of every lesson I can vividly remember him saying, 'All right. Now play me what you're doing in your jazz things.'" Many years later, at the age of 85, de Marky commented to Lees on Peterson's innate talents, saying, "If you have a natural talent for your fingers and harmony, they can't go wrong if they wanted to."

At about the time that he began studies with de Marky, Peterson won first prize on the Ken Soble amateur radio show, which led to a weekly broadcast on CKAC in Montreal. He also performed in Canada on nationally broadcast programs such as The Happy Gang and The Light Up and Listen Hour. Then, in 1942, he joined the Johnny Holmes Orchestra, one of Canada's most popular jazz ensembles. As Holmes recalled to Lees, "The amazing thing is that when he came into our band at seventeen, he had a technique I think every bit equivalent to what he has now. But he was a diamond in the rough." Peterson used his time in the band to refine his talents.

In 1947 Peterson formed his first trio, with bassist Ozzie Roberts and drummer Clarence Jones, and brought the group to Montreal's Alberta Lounge. It was here that Peterson first met record producer and concert promoter Norman Granz, who was to have a major impact on his career. In 1944 Granz had begun mounting all-star jazz concerts at Philharmonic Hall in Los Angeles. These concerts--as well as the ensembles showcased by them--became known as "Jazz at the Philharmonic" (J.A.T.P.). Eventually the Jazz at the Philharmonic enterprise began to feature national touring groups, as well as recordings. While in Montreal with one of these J.A.T.P. touring groups, Granz heard Peterson perform and invited him to play in a concert at Carnegie Hall. The pianist's appearance there in 1949 set the stage for an international career.

During the early 1950s Peterson toured regularly with Jazz at the Philharmonic, traveling to 41 cities in North America, as well as Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, and the Philippines. In 1953 Peterson formed what was to become his most famous trio, with Herb Ellis on guitar and Ray Brown on double bass. The group, which performed and recorded together for five years, was a perfect blending of musical personalities, with the artists remarkably attuned to each other and to the effect of the performance as a whole. Peterson biographer Richard Palmer called the ensemble "the finest piano-bass-guitar group ever" and wrote in 1984 that "the drive, sonority, and almost spooky level of communication are as phenomenal now as when the group was playing and recording ... it was a group based on love; and that still comes across irresistibly from the records twenty-five years on."

Eventually weary of touring, Ellis left the trio in 1958; he was replaced by drummer Ed Thigpen, who remained with the ensemble until 1965. Peterson had settled in Toronto in 1958, and in 1960, along with Brown, Thigpen, trombonist Butch Watanabe, and composer Phil Nimmons, founded that city's Advanced School of Contemporary Music. In addition to offering classes in improvisation, Peterson and his colleagues tried to instill in students a sense of tradition; Peterson explained to Doerschuk, "We found that the awareness among youngsters of what had preceded them in jazz was lacking. In those days people were saying 'Who?' about Miles Davis, believe it or not! So we would go through some of their recordings and say, 'This is what this man did. This is what he meant to the music.'" But Peterson and his fellow educators ultimately found the school demanded too much of their time and abandoned it after three years.

Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s Peterson toured the world, usually with a trio. Beginning in the mid-1970s he also performed with symphony orchestras and in duo settings with such jazz giants as trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Clark Terry and guitarist Joe Pass. After about 1972 he began to appear with increasing frequency as a concert soloist, becoming one of the most highly praised of all jazz performers in that demanding setting. Peterson also worked in television, producing his own series in 1974 and 1978, and recorded extensively throughout the 1970s and 1980s, sometimes producing as many as five or six albums a year.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s Peterson curbed his exhausting touring schedule somewhat and focused more on composing. He also developed an interest in electronic instruments. At his home in Mississauga, Canada, he built a large collection of equipment for use as both a mechanical aid in creating film scores and as a way to find a new perspective on some of his musical ideas. As he told Contemporary Keyboard' s Greg Armbruster, "There are an awful lot of things that are within me that I haven't thought of. I find they tend to come out more when I hear them on an instrument other than the piano; I tend to think a little differently."

Peterson has weathered his share of criticism during his long career. As John McDonough revealed in Down Beat, there are those who see his phenomenal virtuosity as "an engineering sleight of hand whipped up to conceal something that's not really there--emotion, substance, content, or whatever jazz is supposed to have." Yet even Peterson's critics admit that the standards of excellence he set as a young man have never been compromised, and certainly, his dedication to his chosen art form has never been questioned.

by Jeffrey Taylor

Oscar Peterson's Career

Began piano and trumpet study, c. 1930; won first prize in Montreal radio show competition, 1940; appeared regularly on radio station CKAC, Montreal, early 1940s; toured Canada with Johnny Holmes orchestra, 1942-47; formed first trio, 1947; toured U.S. and Europe with Jazz at the Philharmonic, early 1950s; formed trio, with guitarist Herb Ellis and bassist Ray Brown, 1953; Ellis replaced by drummer Ed Thigpen, 1958; helped establish Advanced School of Contemporary Music, Toronto, 1960; toured widely with own trios, early 1960s; performed as solo artist and toured with Ella Fitzgerald, early 1970s; produced television series Oscar Peterson Presents, 1974, and Oscar Peterson's Piano Party, 1978; composed film score for The Silent Partner, 1978; continued to record and compose, experimented with synthesizers, and collected electronic instruments in home recording studio, Mississauga, Ontario, 1980s-early 1990s. Became chancellor of York University, 1991.

Oscar Peterson's Awards

Seven Grammy awards; numerous citations for best jazz pianist from Contemporary Keyboard, Down Beat, and Playboy; awarded the Order of Canada, officer, 1972, companion, 1984; Genie film award for best film score, 1978, for The Silent Partner; officer of the Order of Arts and Letters, France, 1989.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

June 22, 2004: The Toronto-Dominion Centre courtyard in downtown Toronto was named Oscar Peterson Place in honor of Peterson. Source: Globe and Mail, June 23, 2004.

February 2005: It was announced that on his 80th birthday, Canada Post Corp. will honor Peterson by issuing a 50-cent Peterson stamp. This stamp will be the first in Canada to celebrate a living individual. Source: Globe and Mail, February 25, 2005.

Further Reading


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