For all that’s been written posthumously about Oscar Peterson’s eight Grammys and numerous citations, awards never mattered much to the humble man who was Canada’s greatest jazz musician, who died of kidney failure December 23 at the age of 82.
Before agreeing to be interviewed for a NOW cover story back in 91 (click here to see story), he first wanted to size me up. I was told to expect a call from Dr. Peterson, and soon he was on the line asking, “What’s your interest in talking to me?”
I told him I was intrigued that he’d never given up playing (and recording with) the piano despite that fact that many of his fellow artists had switched to electronic keyboards decades earlier.
That was good enough for an invitation to his Mississauga home in upscale West Erindale, where it was Peterson himself who greeted me with a friendly smile, saying, “C’mon in, Tim. We can talk downstairs.”
As I followed him to his basement den, I half-expected to find the room filled with gold and platinum discs along with trophies, commemorative medals and photographs with royals, but when he switched on the lights there was nothing of the sort. Shockingly, I was surrounded by synthesizers of various makes and models. “Shhhhhh!” whispered Peterson with a conspiratorial grin. “A man needs his toys.”
The public knew Peterson as a supreme piano technician whose phenomenal dexterity and innate sense of swing drew the admiration of his celebrated jazz contemporaries and classical stars alike, but there were many more dimensions to the man. Away from the bandstand, Peterson tirelessly fought racial bigotry and social injustice in all its forms.
He told me about being spat upon while touring in the U.S. South with Billie Holiday, but also about troubling incidents in Canada.
When Peterson chose to relocate to Mississauga in the 70s, concerned citizens circulated a petition to try blocking his home purchase for fear of what a resident with a darker complexion might do to property values. He moved in anyway and didn’t make a fuss – not Peterson. Instead, he just let his neighbours deal with having to lick the back side of his postage stamp.
The International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE) is staging an Oscar Peterson tribute concert featuring Oliver Jones at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre (255 Front West) on January 11. www.iaje.org.