RIP- Oscar Peterson

Canadian pianist Oscar Peterson has died at age 82.

I amassed quite a few of his recordings over the years and have marvelled at his performances on video whenever I could find them. Anyone who has ever made the effort try to master an instrument can’t help but be humbled beyond measurement by a musician like him. When one experiences mastery and the sheer poetry of motion in the service of music like his and are educated enough to be able to recognize it and understand some part of what went into it, that is when you are blessed to be a musician.

The New York Times  choose the day of his death to rehash old and small minded complaints about Peterson’s artistry, taking great care to remind us (and probably his friends, family and admirers) that there have always been critics too small minded to accept his unique combination of all conquering ability and gentle temperament.

How sad an expression of the destructive zeitgeist of our time that one feel the need to defend a departed legend from those who would still criticize him for a perceived excess of technique- for being able to play (and to improvise) too fast, too cleanly and to perfectly.

Peterson was surely an incredible talent- by his own account he was already an accomplished pianist at the age of 14 when he first heard Art Tatum, but great talents are born every year. A talent alone is not a virtuoso. Peterson maintained a career at the highest level for a long, long and always productive career. Where others flame out, burn out, give up, fade, lose their chops, sell their souls or run out of ideas, he kept going, always in service to music and his many fans. That takes more than talent, it takes self-discipline, determination, self-sacrifice and a love for music that keeps you practicing through illness, loss, happiness, busy years and times of transition. Even when fate took away so much of his pianism after his stroke, he kept going- forcing himself to continue to grow.

Peterson was never about the search for the next sound like a Miles Davis, but was about the search for excellence, for perfection, for ease, thrills, beauty, power and excitement. Why the paper of record feels that now of all times is the moment to rehash the assaults on his life’s work mounted by those without one tenth his talent, dedication or zeal is beyond me.

Finally, much as I’ve always admired Oscar Peterson, I’m not an expert on his playing or particularly knowledgeable about his discography the way I am about some other recording artists. However, I am lucky to know of him and to know his playing.

How sad that in an era when jazz history is not part of our school curricula and when most communities don’t have a venue for the professional performance of jazz, I would bet that the vast, vast majority of people reading that obituary will never have heard of Oscar Peterson, let alone heard him play. Just think of all the stupid jingles that everyone in western society knows, all the terrible pop songs we’re assaulted by every time we step onto the streets, then think that a great artist has died- a truly great, great musician, who was at the top of his field for sixty years, who recorded hundreds of records and played thousands of shows, and a huge number of our compatriots don’t know who he was.

I’m reminded of Dexter Gordon’s speech in Round Midnight- when will we have an Oscar Peterson Airport, or Sonny Rollins National Park, or even a Max Roach Highway? When are we going to put Duke Ellington on the 100 dollar bill?  

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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4 comments on “RIP- Oscar Peterson”

  1. D de B

    Too right Ken, that article is an outrage! As a pianist who likes to meddle in jazz, I’ve always felt Oscar Peterson was the king. He was my introduction to the world of jazz, and whilst I do enjoy the undoubtedly more complex offerings of many pianist who came after him, I find I always return to Peterson and enjoy his music totally and purely, much as in the classical sphere one might return to Mozart after forays into Bartok or the atonal world.

    “Woefully weak on emotional projection”? Is sheer joy in the act of making music not classified as emotion?? Not to mention some of his truly beautiful ballad playing (check out the 10+ minute Tenderly on “The lost tapes” or Django on “Tracks”) Having a faultless technique is of course a deadly sin (?!), but these critics and detractors seem to be deaf to Peterson’s genius. What really sets him apart, to quote Doug Ramsey, is “one of the most profound senses of time in the history of music”.

    I believe Peterson himself voiced concern at the mass hysteria that accompanied the arrival of the Beatles (at a time when his trio were scaling new heights in jazz), effectively initiating the migration of jazz’s young audience towards music fundamentally more banal (with all due respect). Imagine an MTV generation all worshipping Wynton Marsalis and Brad Mehldau, acknowledging the combined talent, invention and devotion that make their music what it is…

    Anyway, why the NY Times should choose this moment to air these petty swipes is beyond me. Hail to the king!!

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Hey D!

    So good to hear from you- it’s great to have a pianist’s take on Peterson here. The saddest thing about the migration you speak of is that there have always been a substantial number of young listeners who would have prefered Peterson or Sonny Rollins or Miles Davis (never mind Bartok!) who never knew of them or enough about them to make the connection.

    When the only mass media outlet in America enlightened enough to cover the death of major cultural figures does so while belittling their accomplishments instead of taking the opportunity to celebrate and highlight them, yet another generation misses the chance to find out about a great artist.

    Anyway- looking forward to next season’s project. Merry Christmas and all best wishes for 2008!


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