Arts

Growing up in a segregated Montreal set the tone for Oscar Peterson's complex relationship to Canada

Black jazz musicians "coloured south of Montreal as Black as they could" — but it wasn't easy.

Black jazz musicians 'coloured south of Montreal as Black as they could' — but it wasn't easy

Oscar Peterson and his sister Daisy Peterson Sweeney, who taught him how to play the piano. (Library and Archives Canada)

After years of forming his method, and a rigorous schedule playing nightclubs all over North America, Oscar Peterson's big break came in 1949. Norman Granz, a jazz concert promoter dazzled by Peterson's talent, invited him to play at Carnegie Hall with Jazz At The Philharmonic (JATP), a band that featured jazz greats: Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie and Duke Ellington. Overnight, a guest appearance took him from local talent to a promising international star. While clubs at home overlooked him, Duke Ellington was nicknaming him the "Maharaja" of the keys.

This is one of many moments of Peterson's career that is neatly unravelled in Barry Avrich's Oscar Peterson: Black + White, a 2021 documentary on the intricate layers that shaped one of Canada's globally revered legends. Utilizing archival interviews, concerts, and conversations with Peterson's peers and successors, Avrich walks us through the steps Peterson took toward becoming larger-than-life. But the documentary only lightly touches upon one particular hurdle in Peterson's career: "making it" in Canada, something I've been sitting with all winter.

While accepting an award on behalf of her late father, Céline Peterson shared a telling quote from her father: "I've always wanted to feel wanted at home; I've always wanted to be respected at home; I've always wanted to be honoured at home."

The sentiment is a stark contrast from the optimistic, seventeen-year-old Peterson, who proclaimed in the early '40s: "Music is opening up in Canada and there's a much greater future on its way for all the young musicians. I'd like to stick around and be here when it does."

Oscar Peterson with his daughter, Céline Peterson, in 1992. (Submitted by Céline Peterson)

Little Burgundy's growing jazz scene

Peterson first came to prominence in the 1930s alongside Canada's jazz movement at large. Little Burgundy, the small neighbourhood in downtown Montreal that he called home, was slowly becoming the heart of jazz in Canada. For the soon-to-be emerging headliner, the Harlem of the North was the perfect backdrop as he studied. When Peterson's father, a railway porter, purchased his family a piano, a young Oscar began playing the keys as fast as he could. (He was eventually recognized as the quickest pianist in the world, outstripping his predecessor Art Tatum.)

Montreal was a racially divided city as Peterson was growing up. Little Burgundy, located on the south side of the city, was largely inhabited by Black workers and immigrants who had settled there from across the country and diaspora. The north, where many popular jazz clubs were located, was frequented by affluent white crowds and off-limits to Black people. As a result of this segregation, Black jazz musicians had no access to The Stork, El Morocco, or other uptown white clubs. Instead, the Black jazz community assembled clubs of their own: on Saint Antoine Street, edging along the border of Little Burgundy, they coloured south of Montreal as Black as they could. The exclusion they endured required subversion. The result — unbeknownst to them at the time — was an artistic revolution.

Oscar Peterson (right) and his father, Daniel, playing piano in the 1940s. (Library and Archives Canada)

During the day, the Little Burgundy community prayed and played at Union United Church, and found ways to take care of one another. At night, despite laws precluding Black people from owning their own establishments, the neighbourhood would swing at Alberta Lounge or Rockhead's Paradise, a jazz club created by Jamaican railway porter Rufus Rockhead. Rockhead's was also where Peterson and his long-time collaborator, pianist Oliver Jones, honed their craft.

"Rockhead's Paradise was the club to go to. It was the best Black nightclub in Canada," Jones reminisces with me on the phone. "For a long time, it was the only Black club in Canada."

Montreal had over 500 nightclubs in the 40s, but Rockhead's was the place for Black artists. It was one of the few spaces that would accept them. The city was a common destination on the tour circuit for bands heading between the United States and Europe at the time, and due to the constraints of alcohol prohibition laws in the 1920s in the US, clubs in Little Burgundy became a go-to stop for artists and party-goers across the world.

"It was a great opportunity," says Jones. "And, of course, being from Montreal and having this great Black club was an advantage to Oscar and me." The nightclub was frequented by local and international jazz greats, including Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, and Dizzy Gillespie.

"Rockhead's was so well run on any given night and weekend," Jones says he gleefully jogs down memory lane. "You would see Cadillacs and other big chauffeur-driven cars drive up right in front of the door. Everyone was nicely dressed in tuxedos and their very best. At the top of the steps of the building was Mr. Rockhead, waiting to greet people — he always had a wonderful way of greeting people and letting them know who was coming. He was there with some flowers for the ladies."

Daisy Peterson Sweeney's hand in jazz

It was Oscar's older sister, Daisy Peterson Sweeney, who trained, nurtured, and supported the flourishing jazz scene in Little Burgundy. "Oscar, Oliver Jones, Joe Sealey… all of those guys were all trained by Daisy," says Juno-winning jazz vocalist Molly Johnson. "There would be no Oscar, or them, without her."

Oliver Jones lived only 13 doors down from the Peterson family. It didn't take him long, he tells me, to realize Daisy's hand in mentoring and training the musicians of the area — especially a young Oscar. As a kid, Jones spent as much time as he could on the front steps of the Peterson family home, waiting to hear Oscar or Daisy play: "It was an awful lot of music coming from the Peterson household, but somehow, I knew automatically who was playing."

Daisy Peterson Sweeney with Oliver Jones. (Radio-Canada)

After training for two years, Jones finally worked up the courage to ask his teacher, Daisy, a question. "I was eight or nine, and I asked her: 'How about if you teach me to play like Oscar?' Daisy said to me: 'Do you know there was a lot of work Oscar did for him to get to that point?' I later saw for myself how much he studied and looked into everything. He had an outstanding memory."

Despite Daisy's humility, a young Jones was keenly aware of her skill. The two remained close friends through the decades until she passed away in August 2017. Many, including Molly Johnson, consider her legacy to not be highlighted enough. It makes me wonder about the other Black women long overlooked in the male-dominated histories of music.

Staying in Canada against all odds

Canadian jazz musician Molly Johnson. (Chris Nicholls)

Despite the conditions Black artists endured in Canada, Peterson was intent on staying. What was brewing at home was worth witnessing. Peterson was the utmost supporter of local talent, Johnson tells me, and his insistence on remaining "home" is what inspired her to follow suit.

"Whenever my Black American friends come to town, they ask me: 'Where are the Black people?'" Johnson laughs, likely out of frustration, as we talk about the whiteness of jazz nightclub culture in Toronto. It was part of the reason she founded the Kensington Market Jazz Festival in 2016, which has celebrated over 400 local musicians to date.

"I'm in my 60s and have watched the scene for a while," she tells me on a snowy day in Toronto. "Things are improving in Canada." But she points out that the celebration and recognition of local talent remain an issue — one she is diligently addressing through her work. Johnson is confident that the new wave of jazz artists in Canada, such as drummer Larnell Lewis and singer Sammy Jackson, are keeping the magic of the tradition alive.

Having opened for Peterson many times, Johnson tells me her fondest memory with the late pianist was both the worst and best one. After he fell ill one night, desperately in search of a replacement, Johnson was their go-to gal. "Oscar was already ill in private, but at that moment it became public," she remembers. She performed despite being wracked with nerves, but her moment in the spotlight was overshadowed by the realization that she — and the world — were losing Oscar.

A mural by artist Gene Pendon pays tribute to Oscar Peterson in Montreal's Sud Ouest neighbourhood. (CBC)

The martyrs of jazz

In 1968, Nina Simone named Oscar Peterson the greatest pianist alive. But for most of his six-decade career, he was celebrated more abroad than at home. Peterson's face made it on a stamp in Australia before it ever did in his home country. At one point in the documentary, Herbie Hancock laughs as he asks: "How would I have heard of Oscar Peterson if it wasn't for Norman Granz?"

I have been haunted by martyrs of jazz lately — the ones who vanished into the pecking order of this world. Systemic racism, financial precarity, and gendered violence were routine struggles for jazz artists in the 20th century. Many dealt with racism on tour, segregation, and being cheated out of royalties, which sometimes led to substance use. It was the world Peterson responded to with "Hymn to Freedom" (1963), inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. Some survived and thrived; others were swallowed whole by the racist world consuming them.

Black artists here are deeply aware of how we are barred from the arts ecosystem. It consumes us to the point many of us are compelled to leave. In a country still struggling to adequately amplify all our arts and culture, martyrs are perpetually floating among us. I wonder if Oscar Peterson was thinking of those same martyrs in his reflections about this place, too.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Huda Hassan is a journalist and cultural critic. Her writing, reviews, and criticism appears in many places, including Pitchfork, BuzzFeed, and Quill & Quire. She teaches and writes about Black feminist literature and cultural studies in Toronto.

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