Daisy Sweeney remembered for long trail of 'quiet legacies'

Daisy Sweeney, a pillar of Montreal’s black community who taught her younger brother, jazz great Oscar Peterson how to play piano, has died at the age of 97

Sweeney, who died Friday at 97, taught her younger brother Oscar Peterson, countless others to play piano

Daisy Sweeney, pictured here with Oliver Jones, helped set him and her brother, Oscar Peterson, on their way to jazz greatness through her skills as a pianist and teacher. (Radio-Canada)

Daisy Sweeney, a pillar of Montreal's black community who taught her younger brother, jazz great Oscar Peterson, how to play piano, has died. She was 97.

Sweeney was a legend in her own right in her hometown, teaching countless local kids to play piano and founding the Montreal Black Community Youth Choir with Trevor Payne. The choir went on to become the internationally celebrated Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir.

"She worked her way through adversity and demanded that of everyone who ever sat on her piano bench," her daughter Sylvia Sweeney told CBC Montreal's Daybreak Monday.

Sweeney was born Daisy Elitha Peterson in 1920 in Montreal's Saint-Henri neighbourhood, the daughter of a father who worked on the railway and a housekeeper mother.

With few options open to her as a young black woman, Sweeney followed in her mother's footsteps and performed domestic work to pay her way through McGill University, where she studied music.

"She told me at one time that while she was going to university, instead of being rewarded for that, her employer fired her, saying she didn't need to have a maid educated to scrub her toilets."  

Sweeney aspired to a career as a classical pianist, but eventually settled into teaching piano.

Teacher who helped break colour barriers

She is best known for setting her younger brother Oscar Peterson as well as Oliver Jones on their paths to jazz greatness, but Sweeney also influenced generations of black Montrealers as a teacher at the city's Negro Community Centre, where she taught for nearly 40 years.

"She would put anyone who had a will through rigour and ended up marching a lot of students up Atwater Avenue to McGill for their preparatorial exams," Sylvia Sweeney said.

"She broke colour barriers through exceeding expectations, and she expected that of her students, of her children and of her community."

Sweeney said her mother helped broaden acceptance of black Montrealers, and the options available to them, by the example that she and her students set.

"When you see a child who's black sitting at a piano playing classical music and playing it with proficiency, and doing that over time, it starts to normalize the visual," Sylvia Sweeney said.

By the time she reached McGill University on a scholarship, Sylvia Sweeney said she felt like it was a totally natural thing to do.

"I walked into McGill from high school and I felt like I belonged," she said.  "Those are the quiet legacies she left in her wake."

"She worked through very tough times without ever feeling like they were tough."

Oliver Jones remembers his teacher

Montreal-born jazz pianist and composer Oliver Jones studied with Sweeney for 12 years. He said over the course of his life he came to think of her more as a friend than a teacher. 

He talked his parents into letting him study with Sweeney after seeing her brother play piano at Union United Church, which they all attended. 

"I was extremely shy as a youngster. She helped me in so many ways. Not only as a pianist," Jones said.

Montreal's Jazz giant Oliver Jones took his first lessons from Daisy. 0:35

He remembers her being a tough teacher who expected discipline from her students, but she also had a gift for making all children feel special. 

"Even those children who didn't have very much talent, she made them feel good about themselves. I always appreciated that and tried to emulate that," Jones said.

With files from CBC Montreal's Daybreak and Kate McKenna