The man nicknamed the 'Maharaja of the Keyboards' by Duke Ellington was the fourth of five children born to a couple that had emigrated separately to Canada from the West Indies. Young Oscar grew up in the English-speaking black neighbourhood of Little Burgundy in French-speaking Montreal. He first learnt the trumpet before switching to the piano at an early age, being taught first by his father and older sister before his exceptional talent made it necessary for him to have professional lessons. His teacher was a Hungarian classical pianist who had studied under a pupil of Liszt.
Peterson's first professional engagement was with a local band in Montreal while he was still a teenager. After a couple of years he formed his own trio, and after getting slots on CBC, his radio appearances brought him fame across the country.
While his early influences had been boogie-woogie piano as played by the likes of James P. Johnson, he graduated in his teenage years to listening to Teddy Wilson, Nat King Cole and Art Tatum. Peterson loved Tatum in particular, and he soon began imitating aspects of his playing style.
Under the influence of his Hungarian piano teacher Paul de Markey and his older sister Daisy, Peterson developed a love for classical music that never left him. He was a big fan of Rachmaninoff's piano concertos as well Bach's preludes. He was known throughout his career to incorporate quotes from both of them, along with other classical musicians.
Being popular in Canada was one thing, but being big in America was something else. Peterson's U.S. breakthrough came as a result of Norman Granz hearing him play live on radio while being driven to Montreal Airport in a taxi in 1949. Instead of flying home, Granz asked to be taken to Montreal's Alberta Lounge so he could meet Peterson. Shortly afterwards Oscar Peterson made his debut at the midnight concert of Jazz at the Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall on 18 September 1949. In order to circumvent labor laws, Granz 'invited' Peterson up from the audience, where he just happened to be sitting, to play three numbers with Ray Brown and Buddy Rich. 'I Only Have Eyes For You', 'Fine And Dandy' and 'Carnegie Blues' appeared on the Mercury/Clef 10 in. album Oscar Peterson At Carnegie in 1952.
In March 1950, Peterson went into the studio along with Ray Brown on bass, for his first session for Clef. Among the sides he cut were 'Debut', along with 'Tenderly' that became his first single. It was the start of a career with Norman Granz's labels that would last for much of the rest of his life, during which his recorded output was phenomenal.
Later in 1950 he joined the JATP tour as a fully fledged member and was rarely absent thereafter. He also did a number of sessions, including his first for Clef as a trio when Barney Kessel was added on guitar; Peterson was now in the environment in which he felt most comfortable.
Besides recording under his own name he did many sessions for Granz with his trio, or sometimes as part of a quartet backing other artists. In March 1952 he recorded with Billie Holiday what would become her first Clef album, Songs By Billie Holiday – Solitude. Later in the year he worked with Fred Astaire on The Fred Astaire Story.
Peterson's talents were recognized in both 1952 and 1953 when he was voted No. 1 player in America in the Down Beat poll. In all he won the Down Beat poll on twelve occasions, helped by his four 12 in. LPs, Oscar Peterson Plays Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Duke Ellington; the songbook idea in action well before Ella began recording her series in 1956.
When JATP began touring Europe in spring 1952 Peterson was a regular fixture, helping to spread his popularity across the whole continent. In 1955 Peterson played 'A Night of Jazz' at the Royal Albert Hall in London with Ella. While the full JATP show was refused permission to play because of objections from the British Musicians' Union, Peterson was allowed in to play because he was Canadian and the union did not consider singers to be real musicians.
With the formation of Verve, Peterson became even busier, recording multiple sessions in both his own name and as an accompanist. His album In A Romantic Mood became one of the first three releases on Verve in February 1956. The following year, in an effort to pitch Peterson not just as a pianist but also as a singer, the album Soft Sands was released – however he was always a much better pianist.
He worked with Ella and Louis Armstrong on their duet albums, and recorded another with Satchmo, Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson (1957). Along with Ella, Oscar was one of Granz's key assets, both on record and in concert. In the autumn of 1958 Granz promoted concerts across the United States as 'An Evening with Ella Fitzgerald and the Oscar Peterson Trio'. Peterson had an innate sense of swing, and when called upon on any of the Ella and Louis records, he swung like mad – just listen to 'I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm' or 'A Fine Romance'.
In May 1959, Oscar Peterson recorded the excellent album Sonny Stitt Sits In With The Oscar Peterson Trio. Besides working with Stitt, Ella and Louis, Peterson recorded albums under his own name with Milt Jackson from the Modern Jazz Quartet, Stan Getz, Ben Webster, Buddy DeFranco and Lester Young. Among his other highlights from this time are On The Town (1958), Oscar Peterson At The Concertgebouw (1958) and The Jazz Soul Of Oscar Peterson (1959)
He stayed with Verve through the mid-1960s and during this time recorded one of his most successful records, which is still a big seller: 1963's Night Train. One of the tracks on the album is 'Hymn To Freedom' that with added words became one of the crusade songs of the Civil Rights Movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. According to Peterson, "A few months after the session, Norman and I were discussing the album and he brought up the possibility of having lyrics put to the tune. He contacted a lady by the name of Harriette Hamilton, and asked her to write the lyrics, which she did, and thus was born the true 'Hymn To Freedom' song as we know it today." Two of his 1960s recordings that are a must hear are A Jazz Portrait Of Frank Sinatra and West Side Story.
Peterson founded a Toronto jazz school in the 1960s, calling it the Advanced School of Contemporary Music. He also spent a lot more time writing music and proved himself a gifted composer. He wrote The Canadiana Suite (1964) in the early 1960s, and music for several Canadian films including Big North and The Silent Partner (1963). He also wrote a jazz ballet, a suite called 'Africa' and the 'Easter Suite' commissioned by the BBC, and a suite for the Olympic Arts Festival of the Calgary Winter Olympics in 1988.
He was made a Companion of the Order of Canada, Canada's highest civilian honour. He won eight Grammy Awards (including a Lifetime Achievement Grammy), and the 1993 Glenn Gould Prize. Anyone who works as hard as Peterson has to be determined, and he proved his level of determination in 1993; after a stroke in which he lost the use of his left hand, within a year he had returned to tour the world playing piano. He continued to perform until shortly before his death in December 2007.
Oscar Peterson truly was a jazz giant whose star is sometimes unjustly eclipsed by some players who have led shorter or more chaotic lives. His recorded legacy would take weeks to listen to if played continuously back-to-back, and among it you will be hard pressed to find anything that is not exemplary; most of it is brilliant.
Words: Richard Havers
Verve's Master Edition of the Oscar Peterson Trio date released as Night Train includes stately covers of blues and R&B standards like "The Honeydripper," "C-Jam Blues," "Georgia on My Mind," "Bags' Groove," "Moten Swing," and "Things Ain't What They Used to Be." Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen provide tight accompaniment, and there are six previously unavailable tracks recorded the same day, including "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" and "Volare," as well as alternate takes of "Happy-Go-Lucky Local" and "Moten Swing."
Words: John Bush
Pianist Oscar Peterson has long been such a consistent performer that none of his records are throwaways, but this particular set is weaker than most. Since several of the songs are the type that in the mid-'60s would get requested (such as "People," "The Girl from Ipanema," and "The Days of Wine and Roses"), the program would not seem to have much potential, but Peterson mostly uplifts the material (although not much could be done with "People") and adds a few songs (such as his own "Goodbye, J.D." and John Lewis' "D & E"). Overall, this is a reasonably enjoyable Oscar Peterson session, featuring bassist Ray Brown and drummer Ed Thigpen.
Words: Scott Yanow
This 1996 single-CD reissues the complete contents of two former LPs by the Oscar Peterson Trio (consisting of pianist Peterson, bassist Ray Brown and drummer Ed Thigpen) in 1959 and 1962. Although the pianist is virtually always the lead voice, Brown and Thigpen both make strong (if subtle) contributions to the music. Highlights include "Liza," "Con Alma," "Waltz for Debby," Brown's "The Gravy Waltz" and "Yours Is My Heart Alone." An above-average release (and rather generous at 74 minutes) from the much-recorded Oscar Peterson.
Words: Scott Yanow
Pianist Oscar Peterson's Frank Sinatra tribute features his trio (with bassist Ray Brown and drummer Ed Thigpen) playing easy listening jazz versions of a dozen songs associated with the singer. The renditions are all under four minutes and are highlighted by "Come Dance with Me," "Just in Time," "I Get a Kick Out of You," and "How About You?"
Words: Scott Yanow
In what was a giant undertaking (even for producer Norman Granz), pianist Oscar Peterson recorded ten Songbook albums during 1952-1954 and when his trio changed, nine more in 1959. Both of his George Gershwin projects (one from 1952 and the other from 1959) have been reissued in full on this single CD. The earlier date matches the brilliant Peterson with guitarist Barney Kessel and bassist Ray Brown, while the 1959 session has Brown and drummer Ed Thigpen. The Songbook series found Peterson playing concise (around three-minute) versions of tunes, and he always kept the melody in the forefront. The results are not innovative or unique, but they are tasteful and reasonably enjoyable. Since five of the songs are played by both groups, a comparison between the two units is interesting.
Words: Scott Yanow
Oscar Peterson and his trio (with bassist Ray Brown and drummer Ed Thigpen) explore ten of the stronger themes from George Gershwin's Porgy & Bess on this CD reissue. It is true that Peterson's version of "Summertime" will not make one forget the classic rendition by Miles Davis with Gil Evans but, as is true with all of these performances, Peterson makes the melodies sound like his own. "It Ain't Necessarily So" and "I Got Plenty O' Nuttin"' are among the more memorable selections.
Words: Scott Yanow
Although Ella Fitzgerald worked in many different settings, from big bands to guitar-and-voice duets to sets with nearly every piano player in the business (from Duke Ellington on down), one could make a case that her best recordings were made with Oscar Peterson and his small bands. Released in 1976, Ella and Oscar is one of those classic recordings, an album that's as spare and intimate as any that the pair ever issued. In fact, the only other performer featured on this set is Peterson's longtime bassist Ray Brown, whose contributions are minimal. These songs, from the mellifluous "Mean to Me" to a languid "April in Paris," are simple and beautiful.
Piano giant Oscar Peterson's professional career spanned approximately 60 years and produced a prolific amount of recordings, though most of what he waxed during his first two decades was for labels launched by jazz impresario Norman Granz. But Peterson's early duo recordings have been neglected during the CD era until this comprehensive, three-CD set of his duets with Ray Brown or Major Holley made between 1949 and 1951.
While the story of how Granz discovered the phenomenal young pianist has been told in various ways, the producer sought to gain greater exposure for him by featuring Peterson on stage in the United States. Being a Canadian, Peterson was unable to perform legally in the US due to work restrictions on foreign visitors, but Granz solved that problem by providing the pianist a ticket to his 1949 Jazz at the Philharmonic concert at Carnegie then announcing him as a surprise guest, pairing him with the virtuoso bassist Ray Brown, as a planned trio with Buddy Rich failed to materialize after the drummer was drained following his earlier set. Peterson stole the show with his three featured numbers with Brown, who was not only a magnificent timekeeper but also a significant foil for the newcomer. Disc One consists of their complete 1949 set and a return performance the following year, with Peterson's driving "Carnegie Blues" and a previously unissued "Tea For Two" being highlights. Given the age of the source material, the sound is surprisingly good.
Seven duo sessions would take place over the next year-and-a-half, five with Brown and two with Holley; Disc Two includes sessions with each. The first formal meeting with Brown produced a hit record of "Tenderly," which combined just the right mix of swing, technique and elegance. Peterson's lively "Debut," flashy "Oscar's Blues" (both with Brown) and blazing bop vehicle "Nameless" (the latter with Holley) never became widely known but revealed his promise as a composer. The pianist's first encounter with Holley included 13 other tracks; like Brown, Holley was not relegated exclusively to a supporting role but provoked Peterson with his inventive lines, particularly showing off his abilities in the still-popular Latin favorite "Tico Tico." Although "I'll Remember April" is often performed by boppers at a blazing tempo, Peterson and Holley opt for a slow, dreamy setting that works very well. Holley's potent bass line powers Peterson's energetic rendition of Johnny Hodges' neglected gem "Squatty Roo," though there is some noticeable deterioration in the source material for this track.
The third disc, except for two selections, is all Brown. "Caravan" would become a staple in Peterson's repertoire and this early effort is full of flash while swinging like mad, with Brown matching the pianist's virtuosity throughout the performance. Peterson's choppy "Salute to Garner" mimics the style of the popular pianist without sounding overly imitative while his dramatic setting of "Dark Eyes" may seem a bit excessive during the introduction but quickly settles into a swinging manner. Bob Haggart's "What's New" was still a relatively recent work and had not yet become a standard; the duo's treatment blends improvisation with its elegant theme in a satisfying way. "How High the Moon" was already a feature in the repertoires of most jazz musicians by 1950, yet Peterson restrains himself from the furious tempo that many players preferred in order to show off. "The Nearness of You" and the waltz setting of "Laura" shimmer with beauty. Peterson's bluesy "Slow Down" lists Barney Kessel and Alvin Stoller present, though neither man is audible on this track. Holley takes Brown's place for the frenetic "Lover" and the previously unissued "There's a Small Hotel."
Peterson continued to work regularly with Brown in a trio setting until the mid '60s and they reunited over the decades (though they only returned to the duo format on two '70s recordings, one to back Ella Fitzgerald) until the bassist's death in 2002. Aside from the abrasive cardboard CD holders, this boxed set is first class: terrific liner notes by David Ritz, many vintage photographs, a complete discography plus reproductions of the original album jackets and notes. Consider Debut an essential Oscar Peterson collection.
Words: Ken Dryden
By 1957, hard bop was firmly established as the jazz of now, while pianist Oscar Peterson and his ensemble with bassist Ray Brown and guitarist Herb Ellis were making their own distinctive presence known as a true working band playing standards in the swing tradition. Louis Armstrong was more recognizable to the general public as a singer instead of the pioneering trumpet player we all know he was. But popularity contests being the trend, Armstrong's newer fans wanted to hear him entertain them, so in retrospect it was probably a good move to feature his vocalizing on these tracks with Peterson's band and guest drummer Louie Bellson sitting in. The standard form of Armstrong singing the lead lines, followed by playing his pithy and witty horn solos based on the melody secondarily, provides the basis for the format on this charming but predictable recording. What happens frequently is that Armstrong and Peterson play lovely ad lib vocal/piano duets at the outset of many tunes. They are all songs you likely know, with few upbeat numbers or obscure choices, and four extra tracks tacked onto the CD version past the original sessions. In fact, it is the familiarity of songs like the midtempo "Let's Fall in Love," with Armstrong's gravelly and scat singing, and his marvelous ability to riff off of the basic songs that make these offerings endearing. A classic take of "Blues in the Night" is the showstopper, while choosing "Moon Song" is a good, off the beaten path pick as the trumpeter plays two solo choruses, and he leads out on his horn for once during the slightly bouncy, basic blues "I Was Doing All Right." Some extremely slow tunes crop up on occasion, like "How Long Has This Been Going On?," an atypically downtempo take of "Let's Do It," and "You Go to My Head," featuring Peterson's crystalline piano. Liner note author Leonard Feather opines that this is Armstrong's first attempt at the latter tune, and compares it historically to Billie Holiday. There are the dependable swingers "Just One of Those Things," "I Get a Kick Out of You," and "Sweet Lorraine" with Peterson at his accompanying best; a ramped-up version of the usually downtrodden "Willow Weep for Me"; and a duet between Armstrong and Ellis on the sad two-minute ditty "There's No You." All in all, it's difficult to critique or find any real fault with these sessions, though Peterson is subsumed by the presence of Armstrong, who, as Feather notes, really needs nobody's help. That this was their only collaboration speaks volumes of how interactive and communal the session really was, aside from the music made being fairly precious.
Words: Michael G. Nastos
Duke Ellington's music has long excited Oscar Peterson. So when Pablo, in 1999, decided to assemble a collection of Peterson's interpretations of Ellington favorites, the label had a lot to choose from. Spanning 1967-1986, this collection of Norman Granz-produced Pablo sides reminds us how rewarding a combination Peterson's pianism and the Duke's compositions can be. The most obscure piece on the CD is "Lady of the Lavender Mist," which Ellington recorded in 1947 and quit playing altogether in 1952. But most of the gems that Peterson interprets are well-known standards; even those with only a casual interest in jazz are likely to be familiar with "Cotton Tail," "Satin Doll," "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," "In a Sentimental Mood," and "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good." Not all of the songs were actually written or cowritten by the Duke: "Take the A Train" is a Billy Strayhorn composition, while "Things Ain't What They Used to Be" was written by his son Mercer Ellington. But all of the songs were, at some point, in the Duke's repertoire, and even the songs that he didn't write himself were written or cowritten by those he employed. This CD isn't the last word on Peterson playing the Ellington songbook: He was playing Ellington's music long before signing with Pablo, and continued to perform it long after leaving the label in 1986. But it's a fine collection that Peterson's admirers will enjoy.
Words: Alex Henderson