Follow Us on Twitter

Obituary: Oscar Peterson

Obituary by Jack Foley

JAZZ legend Oscar Peterson has died of kidney failure at his home in Toronto, at the age of 82.

The multi-talented pianist and composer was one of jazz’s most recorded musicians and was world-famous for his fast-playing virtuoso style.

In a prolific career, Peterson recorded more than 200 albums and won eight Grammy awards, including a lifetime achievement award in 1997.

Born in Montreal, Canada, in August 1925, Peterson was the son of a West Indian railway porter who was a strict disciplinarian as well as a keen music lover.

He was classically-trained at both the Montreal Conservatory and by private tutors and initially learned to play the trumpet before the effects of tuberculosis persuaded him to switch to the piano.

He opted for a career in jazz after hearing Benny Goodman on the radio and won first prize in a talent competition for amateur acts at the age of 14, which led to spots on Canadian radio and work with dance orchestras around Quebec and Ontario.

Having made his mark at an early age, there really was no stopping Peterson and he went on to release his first single at the age of 19 – the boogie-woogie style I Got Rhythm.

Thereafter, he joined one of Canada’s most popular bands, the Johnny Holmes Orchestra, and continually resisted offers to move to America until he was picked out by the impresario Norman Granz, who heard him in a taxi playing live on the radio.

Granz subsequently stage-managed Peterson’s New York debut at Carnegie Hall, which won him a standing ovation in appreciation of the speed and vitality.

During his career, Peterson would go on to explore a wide range of American songwriters with various trios and quartets and also played solo and as an accompanist to many of the greats, including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker and, from 1982, with fellow pianist Herbie Hancock.

He was also renowned for insisting on silence during his concerts, and once walked off for half an hour when he felt the audience was not listening.

Sadly, he became increasingly troubled by arthritis as he got older and then suffered a stroke in 1993 which restricted the movement in his left hand.

But he continued to make an impression upon the music industry and critics continued to heap praise.

He was made a Companion of the Order of Canada, the country’s highest civilian honour, and was the first living Canadian to be depicted on a stamp.

Only last month (November), the Canadian Songwriters’ Hall of Fame announced that it was to present the star with its Founder’s Award in 2008, to celebrate “a brilliant jazz pianist and composer” who showed “musical dexterity and energetic performances”.

And Hazel McCallion, mayor of Mississauga, Ontario, told CBS News that “the world has lost an important jazz player” when she paid tribute to her former friend hours after his death.

Peterson was married four times and had five children, all by his first wife.