Though jazz is undisputedly American, one of its best musicians comes from Canada. Jazz pianist Oscar Peterson was born in French-speaking Montreal, Canada on August 15, 1925. His parents were immigrants from the West Indies, and they lived in the predominately black neighborhood of Little Burgundy. Though not as prolific or as famous as Harlem’s, Little Burgundy’s jazz scene was thriving.
Peterson grew up in this scene, developing a love of music from an early age. At age 5, he took up the trumpet and piano. But after contracting tuberculosis two years later, he was unable to play the trumpet, so he focused all his efforts toward the piano. Peterson was known as a model student, who practiced for hours each day. He first received lessons from his sister, Daisy Sweeney (who would later teach other Montreal jazz greats), but after his talent outgrew her, he started lessons with the classical pianist Paul de Marky. Though Marky mainly focused on classical music, he, too, was influenced by jazz, and injected it into their studies together.
By his early teens, Peterson had a growing reputation among Canadian pianists. His impressive renditions of ragtime and boogie-woogie tunes garnered him the nickname “The Brown Bomber of Boogie-Woogie.” When he was 14, he won a national music competition put on by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which led to frequent appearances on the CBC’s national radio network.
Soon after, offers to join jazz bands began rolling in, including one from the famed Count Basie Orchestra. But Peterson turned them down because he thought he was too young to turn professional. He finally made his professional debut in 1949. After hearing him on the radio during a visit to Canada, jazz producer Norman Granz demanded that Peterson join him in the U.S. Soon afterward, he was signed to Granz’s label, Verve Records, and joined the Jazz at the Philharmonic Project. His first gig was at Carnegie Hall later that year.
During his time with the JATP, Peterson accompanied some of the biggest jazz acts of the time, including Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Anita O’Day, Billie Holiday, and countless others.
In 1952, Ganz, who by this time had become Peterson’s manager and mentor, suggested it was time that Peterson go on his own. He started a trio with bassist Ray Brown and guitarist Herb Ellis. This arrangement would become one of the most critically acclaimed jazz trios of all time. They were known in particular for their incredible sense of unity. So great was their ability to improvise together and seamlessly intertwine solos and harmonies that the trio has been called “telepathic” on numerous occasions. 1956’s Oscar Peterson at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival and 1958’s On the Town with the Oscar Peterson Trio are considered landmark albums for live jazz.
Ellis left the group in 1958. Believing his contributions to the trio could never be replicated, Peterson and Brown eventually replaced him with drummer Ed Thigpen in 1959. This new incarnation of the trio was also successful, leading to two of Peterson’s most famous albums, 1962’s Night Train and 1964’s Canadiana Suite.
Peterson’s trio would gain and lose members until its end in 1970, though this was not the end of Peterson’s career. He spent the next three decades forming new bands, collaborating on one-off projects, and even composing solo works. In 1990, the original trio of Peterson, Brown, and Ellis came together for a reunion performance and live album, which netted them two Grammy Awards.
Throughout his career, Peterson was also a devoted teacher. In 1958, he opened Canada’s first school for jazz, the Advanced School of Contemporary Music. Though the school eventually closed, he’d also teach at York University and help compose special pieces for students.
After a long, incredible career, Peterson passed away at the age of 82 in 2007. But his legacy is still deeply felt today. (The Canadian postal service recently commissioned a series of stamps featuring Peterson.) He is mostly remembered for his work as a bandleader and collaborator. With each new incarnation of his band, he took the opportunity to expand his repertoire. Highly sensitive to his bandmates’ playing, his playing style took a new turn through each phase of his career.
Often compared to Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson played the piano with virtuosity. Always looking for a new way to play, he embodies the explorative nature of jazz.