This year marks the 90th anniversary of the legendary jazz pianist's birth.
In July 1945, Globe and Mail record reviewer Dillon O’Leary (in his tongue-twistingly-titled column “Hot Platter Patter”) declared that 20-year-old jazz pianist Oscar Peterson’s second single “My Blue Heaven/Louise” was disappointing “but his ideas still show lots of promise.” That promise was fulfilled: over the next 60 years, Peterson earned fame and honours worldwide.
Reviews of his early visits to Toronto, such as this one by the Globe and Mail’s Kay Sanford during a brief appearance at the Royal York Hotel in November 1945, glowed:
This personable young coloured man with the gifted fingers chased the ivories through a varied program and the blues to the lilting Polonaise in a style that left his audience with their mouths agape and pleading “Don’t stop now.” Yes, sir, that man is solid dynamite. But Oscar is a versatile lad who doesn’t just stick to the hot stuff. His long, graceful fingers caressed the piano in a flow of classics as well as chopping a faster tempo to more popular boogie numbers, offering tuneful evidence of the amazing gift which is his.
Peterson made his Massey Hall debut on March 7, 1946. “Peterson has technique, imagination and terrific drive, combined with that relaxed self-possession which allows a musician to give his best at all times,” O’Leary observed in his review. The crowd responded enthusiastically, applauding loudly following Peterson’s rendition of Duke Ellington’s “C Jam Blues” and demanding encores at the end of the night.
Though born in Montreal, Peterson was later based in the Toronto area. One of his most ambitious local projects was the establishment of the Advanced School of Contemporary Music (ASCM) in 1960. Founded by Peterson, the rest of his performance trio (bassist Ray Brown and drummer Ed Thigpen) and clarinetist/composer Phil Nimmons, the school was established to allow professional jazz musicians to mentor emerging talent from across North America. Originally launched in the basement of Peterson’s suburban home, it soon moved downtown to 21 Park Road. The school initially offered courses lasting up to 17 weeks (later shortened to four), which the teachers soon found cut into their touring time. “When we set up the school,” Peterson told the Star in January 1964 after it suspended operations, “it was supposed to be a bit of a holiday activity on our days off. It never worked that way.” Despite the school’s demise, Peterson continued to teach, leading to a term as chancellor of York University. ASCM’s legacy will be honoured this week with the installation of a Toronto Legacy Program plaque on its site on June 18, the same day the Toronto Jazz Festival marks the 90th anniversary of Peterson’s birth.
While Peterson appeared in print ads and television commercials for products ranging from whisky to Coffee-mate, he also lent his presence to public service announcements regarding human rights issues. One such ad, “Together We Are Ontario,” featured Peterson and fellow jazz performers like Guido Basso and Moe Koffman promoting racial harmony in the province. The importance of such work to Peterson is reflected in his autobiography A Jazz Odyssey: on the dedication page, besides mentions of his parents and musical impresario Norman Granz, he gives a shout-out to former Ontario attorney general Roy McMurtry, “who decisively assisted my efforts to persuade TV companies to feature more ethnics in their sponsorship programs.”
Additional material from Oscar Peterson: A Musical Biography by Alex Barris (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2002); A Jazz Odyssey: The Life of Oscar Peterson by Oscar Peterson (New York: Continuum, 2002); the July 21, 1945, November 27, 1945, March 8, 1946, and September 10, 1960 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the January 6, 1964 edition of the Toronto Star.