A tribute to Oscar Peterson

December 27, 2007 | By | 3 Replies More

About a month ago, I wrote an e-mail to one of my heroes, the great jazz pianist, Oscar Peterson.

I have been listening closely to Oscar, mesmerized, ever since I started appreciating and playing jazz (when I was 17 years old, back in the mid-1970s). I saw Oscar perform in Champaign, Illinois about 25 years ago. About 20 years ago, I attended an outdoor concert Oscar gave in Boston. I owned about a dozen Oscar Peterson record albums and I studied these relentlessly, until I could anticipate much of his improvisation. It’s one thing to anticipate the music, but it is another to carefully hear it, much less play anything resembling it. I will never come close to playing music like that, no matter how hard I work at it. It’s just a fact of life and it is not a cause for any sadness that I will never come close to playing music at that level. In that regard, I am a member of a huge club.

For those of us who play jazz, it is difficult to decide what to like best about Oscar Peterson. Was it his beautifully arpeggios that spilled like rapids or was it his multi-textured chords, or was it that ebullient left hand that was never content to assume a subservient role to that explosive right-hand? Or was it Oscar’s equanimity, or his unrelenting effort to reinvent and expand his musical scope, or was it the care he took to never musically stomp on those with whom he played, or was his deep-rooted never-ceasing musicality that was never overwhelmed by his surreal technical abilities?

When I wrote my e-mail to Oscar (I found his e-mail address on Oscar’s website), I felt a bit conspicuous. After all, I’m a 51-year-old man who was writing a fan letter to a musician who probably received buckets of fan mail every month. Nonetheless, I wrote an e-mail to Oscar Peterson. In that e-mail, I attempted to express to Oscar how much his playing inspired me over the years. I told him that my favorite album was Tristeza (although it was difficult to decide on a “favorite”). I tried to explain to Oscar that his music was more than just music.

I knew that Oscar had had a stroke in 1990s, losing the use of his left hand for two years. though he worked his way back to playing concerts. I had read, however, that his health was not good in 2007, so I ended my email to Oscar by wishing him well and expressing hope that he was in good health.

Three days ago, on Christmas Eve, Oscar Peterson died of kidney failure. Like most people who truly love jazz, I felt I knew Oscar more than I knew most of my friends. That’s how it is when you listen to someone with such musical intelligence so carefully for so long. What kind of musician was Oscar Peterson? It’s time to show, rather than tell. The following video is a performance of “You Look Good to Me,” performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival, 1977. It’s an unusual combination of musicians, as you’ll see–it includes Oscar playing along with Ray Brown and Niels Pedersen, both playing the upright bass. Notice how Oscar takes a very simple tune and develops it-—this was not the only time Oscar took a quiet simple song and injected it with an overflowing musicality; this was one of his trademarks. Notice the intense collaboration among the musicians. You simply won’t find better jazz musicians anywhere or anytime (the bass solos of Brown and Pederson are also exquisite). With regard to Oscar, you’ll never see a keyboard player with a better command of the keyboard, a consequence of Oscar’s intense study of classical music along with jazz.

Here’s what MSNBC had to say about Oscar on Christmas Eve:

Oscar Peterson, whose early talent, speedy fingers and musical genius made him one of the world’s best known jazz pianists, has died. He was 82.

Here’s something that you won’t see in most of his obituaries, and it’s yet another reason that Oscar Peterson was also one of my heroes. He achieved greatness though he was often the target of racial animosity, especially back in the 40s and 50s. As he explains in the delightful video documentary (“Oscar Peterson: Music in the Key of Oscar”), the hosts of some of Oscar’s early public performances referred to Oscar as a talented “colored boy.” He looked past these racial smears, though. “I overlooked it, because very few black artists were on radio at the time.”


But it must have been difficult to keep the focus at times. One incident stands out. In his early career, a man from Georgia drove all the way up to New York to hear Oscar perform. The man made this journey year after year. One year, the man asked for chance to meet Oscar. Oscar took the time to meet the man and held out his hand to shake the man’s hand. The man from Georgia refused, stating that he would not shake the hand “of a nigger,” but expressed he “really loved” the way Oscar played the piano.

Oscar knew what he was trying to accomplish from day one and he would not allow himself to get distracted. He was trying to become a truly excellent musician, in keeping with the promise he made to his father.

How did he get his father’s blessing to become a professional musician? In the video documentary, Oscar reported that he was having trouble staying interested in his high school studies.

He explained to his father,” When I should be doing algebra studies, I’m writing parts for the trio.”

Oscar’s father explained to him “there are a lot of jazz piano players out there. Are you just going to be another one of them?”

Oscar didn’t know what his father meant.

His father explained: “I can’t let you leave high school to be a jazz piano player. If you want to be the best, I’ll let you go. But you have to be the best, not the second-best.

Just how proficient a jazz pianist was Oscar Peterson? In the documentary mentioned above, Herbie Hancock comments that after hearing Oscar Peterson play, he was tempted to give up music and perhaps study to be an electrical engineer.

It’s difficult not to spout clichés at a time like this. After all, Oscar will continue to live on through what has to be one of the world’s largest discographies.

For more on Oscar Peterson, check out this information from NPR.


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Category: American Culture, Art, music

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (3)

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  1. Beautiful clip! Oscar was a true original. He was a consummate jazz player who was also very melodic and very accessible to the non jazz fan.

    It always seemed to me that despite his hardships, Oscar Peterson was always a very positive person and I think that comes through when he performs. There is a playful joyousness that pervades everything he does. Even when playing a sad ballad, there is always a glimmer of light and optimism in his music.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Comment from an Oscar Peterson Youtube video: "I'm sure now god is in front of you listenig you play. Rest in peace Oscar P. " 

  3. Mary says:

    Erich – It's always difficult when one of our heroes dies. While you may be a 51 year old man, I bet you feel much younger inside. I'm glad you wrote your fan letter. While it may feel like shouting into a windstorm, what with all the other fans expressing their appreciation for Oscar's music, it is still a positive expression of your being and the world needs all of those it can get.

    Thanks for sharing the clip. Oscar's marvelous.

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