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?