Jazz Piano Legend Oscar Peterson Dies

TORONTO (AP) — Oscar Peterson, whose flying fingers, hard-driving swing and melodic improvisations made him one of the world's most famous and influential jazz pianists in a career that spanned seven decades, has died. He was 82.

Peterson died at his home in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga on Sunday, said Oliver Jones, a family friend and jazz musician. He said Peterson's wife and daughter were with him during his final moments. The cause of death was kidney failure, said Mississauga's mayor, Hazel McCallion.

"He's been going downhill in the last few months," McCallion said, calling Peterson a "very close friend."

During his illustrious career, Peterson played with some of the biggest names in jazz, including Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. He is also remembered for the trio he led with bassist Ray Brown and guitarist Herb Ellis in the 1950s.

Peterson's impressive collection of awards include all of Canada's highest honors, such as the Order of Canada, as well as seven Grammys and a Grammy for lifetime achievement in 1997.

"I've always thought of him as Canada's national treasure. All of Canada mourns for him and his family," said Jones. "He had 60 full years of being considered the top jazz pianist in the world."

"A jazz player is an instant composer," Peterson once said in a CBC interview. "You have to think about it, it's an intellectual form."

Peterson's stature was reflected in the admiration of his peers. Duke Ellington referred to him as the "Maharajah of the keyboard," while Count Basie once said "Oscar Peterson plays the best ivory box I've ever heard."

Herbie Hancock, another legendary jazz pianist, said Peterson's impact was profound.

"Oscar Peterson redefined swing for modern jazz pianists for the latter half of the 20th century up until today," Hancock said in an e-mail message. "I consider him the major influence that formed my roots in jazz piano playing. He mastered the balance between technique, hard blues grooving, and tenderness. ... No one will ever be able to take his place."

Peterson's death also brought tributes from notable figures outside the jazz world.

In a statement, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said "one of the bright lights of jazz has gone out."

"He was a regular on the French stage, where the public adored his luminous style," Sarkozy said. "It is a great loss for us."

Peterson was often invited to perform for heads of state, including Queen Elizabeth II and U.S. President Richard M. Nixon. He wrote "A Royal Wedding Suite" for the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer.

Former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, a fan and friend of the pianist for decades, reminisced about a 2001 Ottawa event when the pianist met South African leader Nelson Mandela.

"It was very emotional," said Chretien. "They were both moved to meet each other. These were two men with humble beginnings who rose to very illustrious levels."

Born on Aug. 15, 1925, in a poor neighborhood of Montreal, Peterson got his passion for music from his father. Daniel Peterson, a railway porter and self-taught pianist, bestowed his love of music to his children, offering them a means to escape from poverty.

At 5 years old, Oscar Peterson learned to play trumpet and piano, but after a bout with tuberculosis, he chose to concentrate on the keyboards. He studied with a Hungarian-born classical pianist, Paul de Marky, who helped develop his technique and "speedy fingers."

He became a teen sensation in his native Canada, playing in dance bands and recording in the late 1930s and 1940s.

He quickly made a name for himself as a jazz virtuoso, often earning comparisons to jazz piano great Art Tatum, his childhood idol, for his speed and technical skill. He was also influenced by Nat King Cole, whose piano trio recordings he considered "a complete musical thesaurus for any aspiring jazz pianist."

American jazz impresario Norman Granz was so impressed after hearing Peterson at a Montreal club that he invited the pianist to come to New York for a Jazz at the Philharmonic concert at Carnegie Hall in 1949 that launched his international career.

Peterson was brought up from the audience as a surprise guest to play a duet with bassist Brown, overwhelming everyone with his dazzling technique and mastery of different jazz styles from boogie woogie to bebop.

Granz, who became the pianist's longtime manager, signed him to the Verve record label and made Peterson part of his touring Jazz at the Philharmonic package which featured the top jazz headliners.

"One of my biggest memories was hearing that Jazz at the Philharmonic ... had signed a young pianist from Canada who played like he ate fire and iron for breakfast," recalled music impresario and record producer Quincy Jones. "Oscar more than lived up to the description. It was a blessing to have known and worked with him. He was one of the last of the giants, but his music and contributions will be eternal."

In 1951, the pianist formed the Oscar Peterson Trio with a guitarist and bassist. When Ellis left the group in 1958, he replaced the guitarist with a series of drummers. Peterson would often release four or five albums a year and became a mainstay at jazz festivals around the world.

But Peterson never stopped calling Canada home, and probably his best known major composition is the 1964 "Canadiana Suite" with jazz themes inspired by the cities and regions of his native country.

In 2005, he became the first living person other than a reigning monarch to be honored with a commemorative stamp in Canada, where streets, squares, concert halls and schools have been named after him.

Peterson suffered a stroke in 1993 that weakened his left hand. But after a two-year recuperation, he gradually resumed performances, and made a series of recordings for the U.S. Telarc label.

He kept playing despite worsening arthritis and difficulties walking, saying in a 2001 interview that "the love I have of the instrument and my group and the medium itself works as a sort of a rejuvenating factor for me."

Peterson's survivors include his fourth wife, Kelly, and their daughter, Celine, and six children from his previous marriages.

Associated Press writers Charles J. Gans and Lily Hindy contributed to this story from New York.