Canadian jazz great Oscar Peterson dies

The jazz odyssey is over for Oscar Peterson: the Canadian known globally as one of the most spectacularly talented musicians ever to play jazz piano has died at age 82.

Jazz fans and Canadians both home and abroad are mourning the death ofOscar Peterson, the virtuoso known globally as one of the most talented musicians ever to play jazz piano.

Peterson died Sunday night at his home in Mississauga, Ont., from kidney failure. He was 82.

In August 2005, Canada Post paid tribute to Oscar Peterson on his 80th birthday by issuing a postage stamp in his honour. ((Nathan Denette/Canadian Press))

"The world has lost the world's greatest jazz player," Hazel McCallion, mayor of Mississauga and Peterson's friend, told CBC News on Monday afternoon.

Renowned for his speed and virtuosity as a pianist, Peterson — who was born in Montreal and later made Toronto his home — made hundreds of recordings in his career, even after a stroke in 1993 disabled his left hand.

"What he was able to achieve [after his stroke], playing with half of what most other pianists had, he was still light years ahead of every one else," said jazz broadcaster Ross Porter.

Liberal politician andformer Ontario premier Bob Rae said he "worshipped" Peterson as a musician and afan,and hailed the pianist for his achievements.

"The young Oscar was without question the greatest piano playerof his time … the greatest piano player player of jazz," Rae said, praisingPetersonfor "the dexterity of his right hand, the stride, the power of his left."

"As he got older, the depth of his humanity came out in his compositions," added Rae.

Over the years, Peterson's recording and performing partners included such stars as Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Nat King Cole and Stan Getz.

Some of Peterson's most legendary works came after he teamed up to form the Oscar Peterson Trio in 1953. The trio created such classic recordings as 1955's At Zardis, 1956's At the Stratford Shakespearean Festival and 1957's At Concertgebouw.

Lived for music's 'moments of great beauty'

He formed another classic piano-guitar-bass trio in the 1970s with guitarist Joe Pass and Danish-born bassist Niels Pedersen.

Peterson revelled in the kind of improvisation he could perform with talented musicians, recalling in a 2005 interview how well he worked with his late friend Pedersen.

"The minute we get to the sections where he's featured, I take no prisoners! I like to take liberties, and he's got to be right there to hear where I'm going. We still open doors in the improvisation for one another to develop."

He also loved the competitive nature of this kind of jazz and the unexpected pleasures that could emerge in live performances.

"There is always the chance for moments of great beauty to emerge," he said.

Among the dozens of awards and acknowledgments over the decades, Peterson racked up eight Grammy Awards, including for Lifetime Achievement in 1997, received an International Jazz Hall of Fame Award in the same year and was named a Companion of the Order of Canada, its highest level.

His autobiography, A Jazz Odyssey: The Life of Oscar Peterson, was written in collaboration with jazz journalist Richard Palmer.

"He really put Montreal on the map of jazz," Tracy Biddle, whose late father Charles was a pioneering club ownerin the city's jazz community and a close friend of Peterson's, said in an interview in Montreal.

"I believe that on a grander scale, the impact he had on the black community and on the whole musical community was huge.

"He broke out of Canada. He's one of the first people. We talk of Céline Dion, and Shania Twain, and Alanis Morissette and Bryan Adams. Oscar Peterson did what they did years ago as a black person. So what he's done is incredible."

Early success

Born in Montreal in Aug. 15, 1925, Peterson was the son of a Canadian National railroad porter.

Though he started playing piano at age five, taught by his sister Daisy, Peterson credited his introduction to jazz to his older brother Fred, who died of tuberculosis at age 16.

Oscar continued his studies under Paul de Marky, a Hungarian-born pianist and composer.

Peterson said he learned how to use a piano to full potential from de Marky and from listening to jazz greats.

Tributes to Oscar Peterson

'Apart from perhaps [jazz pianist] Art Tatum, there has been no one in the history of jazzthat has come close to his performance level and his dedication to the music.'
—Composer and pianist Joe Sealy

'The world has lost the world's greatest jazz player.'
—Mississauga, Ont., Mayor Hazel McCallion

'[After his stroke] he came back and for the most part was playing with one hand.… What he was able to achieve, playing with half of what most other pianists had, he was still light years ahead of everyone else.'
—Jazz broadcaster Ross Porter

'I don't think we'll ever see another jazz musician get the amount of credit that he received over the years. He was a wonderful inspiration to myself and so many other young pianists.'
—Canadian jazz pianist and longtime Peterson friend Oliver Jones

'I just worshipped him as a musician … he just set the standard for jazz composition, as well as his incredible ability as a piano player.'
—Liberal politician, former Ontario premier and Peterson fan Bob Rae

'He broke out of Canada. He's one of the first people. We talk of Céline Dion, and Shania Twain, and Alanis Morissette and Bryan Adams. Oscar Peterson did what they did years ago as a black person. So what he's done is incredible.'
—Tracy Biddle, daughter of Montreal jazz pillar Charlie Biddle

'Somebody once said that [Franz] Lizst conquered the piano and [Frédéric] Chopin seduced it. Oscar is our Lizst.'
—Canadian jazz journalist, lyricist and Peterson biographer Gene Lees

'I learned a lot from playing with him and it was great, what I would call on-the-job training … playing in a situation like that where you never know what's going to happen from one moment to the next.'
Jazz guitarist Lorne Lofsky

"I never tried to sound like a trumpet or a clarinet," he once said an interview with the Wall Street Journal.

"I was taught to respect it for what it was: a piano. And it spoke with a certain voice. And that was what I was determined to bring forward."

At age 15, Peterson won first prize in a CBC radio talent show and was invited to play weekly on the Montreal station CKAC.

He soon had other offers to play on radio. By 1942, Peterson was performing with one of Canada's leading big bands, the Johnny Holmes Orchestra.

He came up against the colour bar early in his career, with some hotels threatening to prevent him from playing and radio hosts introducing him as "a coloured boy with amazing fingers."

About this time, his father, Daniel Peterson, brought home a recording by Art Tatum, then considered the best jazz pianist of his day. Peterson later recalled how Tatum gave him a new pinnacle to aim for.

"Of course I was just about flattened … I swear, I didn't play piano for two months afterward, I was so intimidated," Peterson said.

Later, Tatum came to regard Peterson as heir to his crown as the king of jazz pianists.

Carnegie Hall

In 1949, Peterson got another big break. The story goes that jazz promoter Norman Granz was in a taxi on the way to the airport in Montreal when he heard a live Peterson broadcast on the radio, and insisted the driver turn around and drive him to the club where the broadcast originated.

Granz signed Peterson up for a gig at Carnegie Hall in New York with some of the biggest names in jazz.

According to a report in Down Beat magazine, at Carnegie Hall Peterson "stopped the concert dead cold in its tracks."

Granz became one of Peterson's closest friends and his manager. Peterson began to build international renown, touring in the 1950s with Jazz at the Philharmonic to Japan, Hong Kong, Australia and the Philippines.

Birth of a legendary trio

In 1953, Peterson formed the Oscar Peterson Trio, joining up with bassist Ray Brown, and then guitarist Herb Ellis. They became one of the hardest-working trios in jazz, touring the U.S. under Ganz's management.

"When the group gets hot you take a lot of chances and pull a lot of things off when you play it live that you might not do before a microphone, " Brown recalled in a 1975 interview with CBC Radio.

"When you have a group that operates five days a week in nightclubs…you had to be on your toes. [Oscar said] we want to be able to play any song and make it work."

Peterson moved to Toronto in 1958 and kept a base in Canada throughout the rest of his career.

Oscar Peterson addresses the crowd during a tribute to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien at a Liberal convention on Nov. 13, 2003. ((Tom Hanson/Canadian Press))

A year later, he and several other musicians founded the Advanced School of Contemporary Music, a school to teach jazz, but it lasted only a few years.

Peterson continued to perform throughout the world, even behind the Iron Curtain in Ljubljana, then part of Yugoslavia.

As a composer, his best-known work is likely 1964's Canadiana Suite, each track of which was inspired by a different region. Peterson called it "my musical portrait of the Canada I love."

He made the first of many solo recordings in the late 1960s and often played solo in the 1970s and 1980s. He also began voice recording in 1965 on With Respect to Nat.

He composed film and television scores, winning a Genie film award for best film score in 1978, for The Silent Partner.

Peterson built a recording studio in his Mississauga, Ont., home so that he could experiment with electronic keyboard and sound equipment.

The struggle to overcome a stroke

In 1993, while performing at the Blue Note club in New York, Peterson noticed a numbness in his left hand, and doctors diagnosed a stroke.

Peterson was depressed by the loss of ability and stopped playing for two years. "The first day I sat at the piano with my therapist, I had tears in my eyes," he told the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

But he said fellow musicians encouraged him to continue playing, initially with the right hand only and eventually with a slightly disabled left hand. Playing with a group was "the best therapy of all," he said.

He continued to travel and perform, still packing in the audiences. His 80th birthday in 2005 was celebrated with a concert featuring Diana Krall and a new postage stamp honouring him.

Peterson has received numerous citations for best jazz pianist from Contemporary Keyboard and Down Beat, was named an officer of the Order of Arts and Letters in France and served aschancellor at York University in Toronto in the 1990s.

The pianist's life was showcased in two films, Oscar Peterson: Music in the Key of Oscar in 1995 and Oscar Peterson: The Life of a Legend in 1996.

Over the years, Peterson has been a supporter of other Canadian artists and music students, including appearing in 2006 at a school in Mississauga named after him to hear a school concert.

"It's very moving to work with them and to play with them," he told CBC Television at that appearance. "I want to say again I'm a softy for youngsters. I'm so glad to be here with them. "

Peterson was married four times and had six children from his first and third marriages — Lyn, Sharon, Gay, Oscar Jr., Norman and Joel — and one daughter, Celine, with his fourth wife, Kelly.

According to friends of the family, there will be a private funeral for Peterson, with a public memorial service to be held in the new year.

With files from the Canadian Press