Thursday, January 10, 2008

Dr. Oscar Peterson Was One of the World's Greatest Pianists

Oscar Peterson was one of the world’s greatest pianists

By Norman (Otis) Richmond

Canada and the world have lost one of if not the world’s greatest pianist.

Oscar Emmanuel Peterson joined the ancestors on December 23, 2007. While Canadians like Shania Twain, Celine Dion, Bryan Adams, Alanis Morissette, Diana Krall and others are today global household names, it was Mr. Peterson who put Canada on the musical map.

It is a sad fact that Mr. Peterson was revered more in racist America than he was in the land of his birth.

In 2004 this writer wrote in Share, “When broadcaster and community activist Milton Blake and this writer created the Black Music Association's Toronto Chapter in 1984, it was our intention to plug African-Canadian music makers into the international music market.

At that time only jazz pianist Oscar Peterson had penetrated the global market. Most observers of Canadian Black Music credit Norman Granz, a Euro-American, and not the Canadian industry with Peterson's success.”

Mr.Peterson like El-Hajj El Shabazz (Malcolm X), Franz Fanon, Robert F.Williams and my father Norman Lee Richmond were from the Class of 1925.

He was born in Montreal on August 15th. He played with all the giants of the music. He recorded with Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Roy Eldridge, Nat King Cole, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington. In fact, Sir Duke once called Mr. Peterson the “Maharajah of the keyboard.”

In 2002, Mr. Peterson published his memoirs, "A Jazz Odyssey: The Life of Oscar." Mr. Peterson was considered royalty of the music. He released over 200 recordings, won seven Grammy Awards, Down Beat magazine's best jazz pianist 13 times and received other numerous awards and honors over the course of his career.

In 1991, he won a Toronto Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement and one year later I won a Toronto Arts Award for Media Arts and I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Peterson. He introduced me to his son. I remember him laughing and saying “Norman I’d like you to meet my son Norman.”

Several years ago, CKLN’s Tien Providence of the Jazz Zone fame and this writer were scheduled to interview Mr. Peterson.

However, he was ill and we ended up speaking with his bassist, Dave Young and the jazz historian, Douglas Daniels, who had just wrote one of his book, “Lester Leaps In: The Life and Times of Lester Young.” Mr. Peterson would grant me many interviews and do a station I.D. from myself and radio station CKLN-FM 88.1.

Fellow pianist, Ray Weston, gave me a copy of a DVD, “Music Inn”, which was a retreat for jazz, folk, blues, Caribbean and what the music industry has falsely dubbed “world music" between 1950 and 1960. Legendary musicians, academics and musicologists, scholars, dancers and others gathered each summer in the hills of western Massachusetts.

At the Berkshires many discovered their roots in jazz and folk giants through performance and discussions—creating a venue where almost every major jazz musician performed, and finally culminating in the first school of jazz.

Peterson was there along with Jamaica’s Louise Bennett-Coverley (Miss Lou), Trinidad and Tobago’s Geoffrey Holder, Mahalia Jackson, Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie, John Lewis, Josh White and others.

Weston says that Mr. Peterson, along with John Lewis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Max Roach become instructors at the Music Inn.

Both of Mr. Peterson’s parents hailed from the Caribbean. His father, Daniel Peterson, was born in the Virgin Islands and mother Daisy was from St.Kitts-Nevis. He grew up in a Garveyite home and played for Marcus Garvey when the African nationalist visited Montreal.

The Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, remembers Peterson sitting at the piano of her father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin, when she was growing up in Detroit.

Mr. Peterson told me in an interview that the American ambassador of Spain once came to see and respect him as a “fellow American.” He was shocked to find out that Mr. Peterson was born under the Maple Leaf flag in Montreal, Quebec and not under the Stars and Stripes.

Even though Mr.Peterson was the subject of Canada Post's first "celebrity" stamp released in 2005 to mark his 80th birthday, he was never treated fairly by many of “the big White folks” of Canada.

Mr. Peterson's most famous compositions are his ‘Canadiana Suite”, which features jazz themes inspired by various Canadian cities and regions (eg. Hogtown Blues), and his ‘Hymn to Freedom”. It is hard to believe a man of Mr. Peterson stature only won two Juno Awards. Many, myself included, believe this has more to do with the Juno’s than Mr. Peterson.

Another legendary pianist, Hank Jones, summed up Mr. Peterson’s place in the history of the piano and the music by saying, “He’s somebody who will never be replaced.”

Norman Richmond can be contacted at

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