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Oscar Peterson: a 'coloured boy with amazing fingers'

Oscar Peterson was a giant in every sense of the word. Standing well over six feet tall, he'd even been mistaken for a football player. But there's no mistaking his brilliance on the keyboard. His dazzling technique combined with his swinging style made the Montreal native, as one critic remarked, the best damn jazz pianist in the whole world. Oscar Peterson died on December 23, 2007. He was 82.

It's one month shy of Oscar Peterson's 19th birthday. The six-foot-three, 220 pound "coloured boy with amazing fingers" is invited to perform on The Merchant Navy Show. As heard in this early CBC footage, Peterson wows the crowd with his performace of "Boogie Woogie Cocktail" by Ken Kersey. Peterson later said that being called "boy" during the interview was not patronizing but insulting. While still in high school, Peterson has managed to gain quite a reputation as a jazz pianist.

At age 14 he wins a national amateur contest put on by the CBC. Three years later Peterson begins playing with the Johnny Holmes Orchestra, Montreal's most popular swing band. Since Peterson is the only black musician in the group, he becomes an easy target for racists. One such encounter takes place at Montreal's Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
The orchestra was booked in advance to play but at the last minute the hotel objects to its "coloured pianist."

When Holmes threatens to take out ads condemning the Ritz-Carlton for its racist policies, the hotel backs down. The gig goes on as planned.
Despite such incidents, Peterson blossoms musically in the group. Under Holmes's guidance he polishes what he calls his "diamond in the rough" technique.
Holmes helps Peterson develop a personal style, pushing him to go on beyond his technical genius.
• Oscar Peterson admired jazz pianist Art Tatum. He recalled how the first time he heard Tatum's recordings he was so awestruck he stopped playing the piano for a month.
• Peterson dropped out of high school to pursue a career in music. When he told his father of his decision Daniel Peterson said he'd allow it if Oscar promised to become the best.
• Two months after the performance at the Ritz-Carlton, Peterson married Lillie Fraser. He was 19; she was 17.
Medium: Radio
Program: Merchant Navy Show
Broadcast Date: July 11, 1944
Guest(s): Oscar Peterson
Announcer: Jeff Davis
Duration: 3:51

Last updated: January 27, 2012

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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