Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times
One of the best-loved figures of the jazz world, pianist Oscar Peterson played with all the greats during his seven decades in the business, displaying a versatile style that included boogie-woogie, stride and bebop.

Oscar Peterson, 82; pianist dazzled jazz world with technique, creativity

Oscar Peterson
Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times
One of the best-loved figures of the jazz world, pianist Oscar Peterson played with all the greats during his seven decades in the business, displaying a versatile style that included boogie-woogie, stride and bebop.
By Don Heckman, Special to The Times
December 25, 2007
Oscar Peterson, whose technical virtuosity, imaginative improvising and ineffable sense of swing made him one of the jazz world's most influential and honored pianists, died Sunday. He was 82.

In failing health in recent months, Peterson died from kidney failure at his home in Mississauga, Canada, near Toronto, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Co.

From the time he came on the scene in the United States, beginning his six-decade career with a Carnegie Hall concert in 1949, Peterson was universally admired. His awards are almost countless. Among the most significant were eight Grammys, as well as a Recording Academy lifetime achievement honor in 1997. His home country -- where he continued to live for most of his life -- made him a Companion of the Order of Canada, the nation's highest civilian honor, and he was the first living Canadian to be depicted on a postage stamp.

"I consider him to be the dominant piano player that established my foundation," pianist Herbie Hancock said Monday. "I had started off as a classical pianist, and I was dazzled by the precision of his playing. But it was primarily the groove that moved me about Oscar. The groove and the blues, but with the sophistication that I was used to from classical music."

Singer and pianist Diana Krall, like Peterson a Canadian, was similarly affected, generations later, by Peterson.

"He was the reason I became a jazz pianist," she told The Times. "In my high school yearbook it says that my goal is to become a jazz pianist like Oscar Peterson. I didn't know then we'd become such close friends over the years. We were together at his house in October, playing and singing songs together. Now it's almost impossible for me to think of him in the past tense."

At a time when the piano players of the fertile post-World War II jazz era were establishing their own beachheads on the scene -- Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, George Shearing, Dave Brubeck, Erroll Garner, among many others -- Peterson's command of the instrument gave him a unique status, one that hadn't been seen since the prewar virtuosity of the legendary Art Tatum. Exhibiting a technique that dazzled even the classical pianists who heard him play, Tatum created hard-swinging, instantaneous compositions with content and structure that rivaled the complexities of a Chopin etude.

Peterson performed with some of jazz's most iconic figures, from Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong to Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald -- revealing the capacity to adjust to a diverse array of styles without losing contact with his own essential musical qualities.

"We came up about the same time," Brubeck told The Times some years ago. "And Oscar had everything going for him when he was still very young, maybe before he was 20. He had already encompassed what a jazz pianist should be."

That, in Peterson's case, meant a mastery reaching from stride piano through the swing era and into bebop. At several points in his career, he added singing to his arsenal of skills, producing a few recordings in which both his piano and his voice are remarkably reminiscent of Nat "King" Cole.

"Oscar's playing was magnificent and always wonderfully swinging," said Marian McPartland after hearing of Peterson's death. "He was the finest technician that I have seen."

Both his versatility and his fast-fingered brilliance provoked criticism from some observers who found it difficult to look past Peterson's technical prowess into the heart of his improvisational inventiveness. But Peterson always shrugged off the comments.

Bassist Ray Brown, one of the key members of Peterson's classic 1950s trio that also included guitarist Herb Ellis, felt the criticism missed what he believed was the real significance of Peterson's playing.

"I don't think very many people actually contribute to the music itself," Brown once told The Times. "That's left to a very few, like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. When they came up with that stuff they did, they brought a change in music. More often, I think that contributions are made to the instrument. Take Lester Young, for example. He brought something new to the saxophone, something different from Coleman Hawkins. The music was there; he just did it a different way. What I would say is that Oscar has made an enormous contribution to the piano. It hasn't been the same since he came on the scene."

Brubeck, agreeing, put it all in context. "You do what you have to do with whatever means you have at hand," he said, adding, more pointedly, "But if you've got all that technique, it would be terrible not to use it."

Peterson was quick, however, to acknowledge that he stood on the shoulders of giants. Hancock recalled a dinner at Quincy Jones' home a few years ago, at which he gathered the courage to ask a question of Peterson that had long troubled him.

"I'd always been afraid to ask," said Hancock. "But, knowing my own feelings about Art Tatum, I was curious about how Oscar felt about him. So I asked, and he said, 'Lemme tell you, sir. . . .'

"And he went on to tell me how, when he was a kid, he was a pretty good piano player, and he'd always hold his own in the cutting contests that young players had. And he said he got really cocky about it.

"So one day his father, who would take him to places to hear other piano players, said there was a guy coming in town that he might want to listen to. And Oscar said he thought, 'Well, who could this be? I can beat the best of them.'

"It was Art Tatum, of course. And he said that after he heard Tatum play, he went home, went up to the second floor of his house and immediately tried to push his piano out the window. He said he was never cocky again. And I said, 'You too, Oscar?' And he said, 'Me too. Tatum scared me to death.' "


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