Virtuous virtuoso

It should come as no surprise that Oscar Peterson is still going strong at 75, having brought a Tory work ethic to the wild, often destructive world of jazz

Reprinted from National Post
Originally published Tue Aug 15 2000
Page: B1 / FRONT
Section: Arts & Life
Byline: Paul Wells

Today Oscar Peterson turns 75. Exhibit A, for anyone wondering what’s to celebrate, is a tune called Swingin’ Till the Girls Come Home, recorded at Carnegie Hall in 1953 and anthologized many times since. I do not believe three men have ever swung harder than the Oscar Peterson Trio did during those three minutes at Carnegie.
Swingin’ is a simple 12-bar blues, counted off with a few medium-bright toe taps by Peterson, who would have been 27 at the time. The Montreal-born pianist states the theme without fuss or bother, in unison with his guitarist Herb Ellis. It’s only in the third chorus, when bassist Ray Brown shifts into a four-four walk and Ellis starts tapping out a three-note ostinato figure, that remarkable things start happening. Sprays of notes fly from Peterson’s keyboard. The three men start playing elaborate Alphonse-Gaston games, one pushing forward on the beat while the others hold back, each dashing in turn and without warning from the background into the lead role.
Through it all, a forward momentum so intense you can hardly believe it. Swing so hard it must have seemed as though the three men were about to levitate from the bandstand. Peterson is foot slapping against the Carnegie stage so insistently it’s sometimes the loudest sound on the track. Leader, sidemen and audience sometimes shouting aloud with the joy of it all.
In the years between then and now, Peterson would become the most consistently popular pianist in jazz, win awards by the shelf full, serve a stint as chancellor of York University, survive a stroke with his will to play intact and his faculties surprisingly resilient. Still ahead of him on that night, as he and Ellis and Brown dug divots into the Carnegie floorboards with the force of their playing, was the ubiquity that has made Peterson at once so familiar and so easy to overlook.
You can pick any Oscar Peterson performance at random, from 1949 at least through the mid-’80s, and hear the virtues of virtuosity. Dig only a little more selectively through his legacy and you find tracks like Swingin’ Till The Girls Come Home. Breathtaking performances. Shocking musical eloquence. He’s so good that, sometimes, we have to remind ourselves how good he is.
The story is familiar enough. He was born in Montreal in 1925. His older sister was one of his first teachers. He played around Montreal with Nick Ayoub, Maynard Ferguson, Johnnie Holmes. In 1947 he landed a trio gig at the Alberta Lounge, and once a week radio would broadcast Peterson’s performance live. Lucky break. In 1949 a hotshot New York concert producer named Norman Granz was in Montreal. He heard the radio show from the back seat of a taxi, found out it was live and had the cabbie drive him straight to the Alberta Lounge. Within weeks, Peterson was slotted into a show Granz was producing at Carnegie Hall. There’s a recording of that night, too. You can hear the crowd figure out, about a third of the way through the first tune, that something remarkable is going on.
That was 1949. Every year from 1950 to 1955, and many years after that, the readers of Down Beat magazine voted him best pianist. He never really looked back after his big-league debut. Diligent practice had made him an astonishing keyboard technician, entirely comfortable at the fastest tempos. Classical studies had given him a broad harmonic vocabulary. His fondness for a slightly older generation of pianists — Art Tatum, Nat Cole — showed him the value of a solid, rhythmically assertive left hand at a moment when most pianists were concentrating almost exclusively on right-hand melody. So he was entirely at ease playing solo, even as solo piano was going out of style.
In retrospect, much about his career can be explained by the way Peterson swooped in from the North and swept almost instantly to the top. He was an outsider, and to an extent he’d remain so. He would always be aware of trends and friendly with trend-setters, but he never felt the need to stay fashionable.
Bebop, stripped-down and rhythmically trickier than older styles, was all the rage in New York in 1949. Peterson would befriend bop pioneers such as Dizzy Gillespie and Milt Jackson and frequently nod at the bop vocabulary; there’s a 1951 recording of I’ve Got Rhythm that opens with Peterson quoting a Charlie Parker tune at length. But he never really assimilated the bop language. His playing would always have the regular phrase lengths of older players, the sound of certainty and polish, not wild speculation.
He also brought a starched Tory work ethic to a jazz community that seemed at times to be spiralling into chaos. Before he was 30 he complained in Down Beat that heroin, laziness and rebel posturing had ruined too many musicians for the serious work of refining their music. If Ellis or Brown ever left the band, he wrote, he’d have to screen applicants for punctuality and clean living. The article made it obvious that Peterson had what he needed for the long haul, but to many of his colleagues, it must have seemed absurdly schoolmarmish.
Let the hipsters scoff. Peterson’s two great trios — with Brown and Ellis from 1953 to 1958 and with Brown and drummer Ed Thigpen to 1965 — were models of precision. The three practised constantly, and in Peterson’s absence, the bassist and the third man would hold “sectional rehearsals,” working through all the ways they might respond to the boss’s improvisations.
The result was a music in which tempos would shift as smoothly as the gears in an Aston Martin sports car. Every tune in a set would be built on a different groove, every solo cast against a different background figure; in short, music that expanded the orchestral possibilities of the trio format. The Peterson trio would find itself sharing a stage, now and then, with the Count Basie Orchestra; Peterson would tell his sidemen that, since there were three of them and 15 in the Basie band, they’d simply have to work five times as hard.
The valedictory address from this golden-age Peterson was a 1964 album, The Canadiana Suite. Each tune represents a different region of Canada. Peterson, who’d moved to Toronto and forced his American sidemen to move with him, gave each movement a clear identity and mood. The album is a masterpiece of small-group writing and orchestration; anyone obsessed with innovation can look elsewhere, but anyone looking for beauty should start here. And it reminds us, as Love Ballade and Hymn to Freedom and a handful of other tunes have over the years, that Peterson is at least as distinctive a composer as he is a player.
Peterson would always have good bands after that, featuring the likes of Joe Pass on guitar or Neils-Henning Orsted Pederson, a Danish virtuoso, on bass. But he would never rehearse as diligently again, and his playing after 1965 emphasized solo heroics over group intricacy. Often he’d play solo for half a night before introducing his sidemen, and his bands became relaxed, loosy-goosy affairs. But precisely because his focus had shifted from orchestral to personal, his style changed again.
Peterson’s late music is far more harmonically interesting, especially when he pauses from crowd-pleasing pyrotechnics to concentrate on almost prayerful ballads. Fans are sometimes surprised to learn that Bill Evans, who had no interest in foot-stomping exuberance, often called Peterson his favourite pianist. The explanation is in the way each learned to reach for depths of beauty available to only a few musicians. To this day, Peterson still plays a few shows a year that make it possible to glimpse what he’s been capable of. His 1993 stroke knocked most of the ability from his left hand, but it didn’t touch his brain and his heart, where his success truly lies.
In 1977, a Peterson tour of the Soviet Union ground to a halt under the weight of organizational snafus, but not before the Pablo record company recorded one of Peterson’s shows. On that album there’s a version of Someone to Watch Over Me. Peterson double-times his solo, rambling amiably over a gentle left-hand stride figure before slowing back down for an achingly lovely restatement of the melody. Then he reaches into the piano to strum the last chord, like an angel plucking a harp.
As a high school student, I borrowed the album from the library and dubbed that tune on to a cassette and played the tape, last thing every night before I went to sleep, for most of a year. I’ve lost the tape, but I can hear that last chorus in my head to this day. Probably millions of people have some comparable Oscar Peterson story. Who among us can possibly hope to make as much of our own lives? Happy birthday.

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