Oscar Peterson

Canada's legendary jazz pianist, a technical virtuoso who performed with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz and Dizzy Gillespie and inspired generations of jazz musicians

After the phenomenal jazz-piano virtuoso Art Tatum died in 1956, Canadian pianist Oscar Peterson - who had already been waiting in the wings for a decade - eased his formidable frame on to the throne. Like Tatum, Peterson had a Liszt-like technique (classical music's star pianists came to marvel at both of them), and could transform any melody into streams of spontaneous alternatives, sustain any tempo, use his left hand as freely as his right, and keep a faultless built-in rhythm section at work in his head. These skills made Peterson, who has died of kidney failure at the age of 82, one of the best-loved stars in the jazz mainstream.

The sympathetic but uncharitable among jazz purists might have held that Peterson was the unfortunate victim of his spectacular technique. All his performances would feature the same mix of flooding arpeggios, cascading introductions and codas, ragtime and barrelhouse pastiches, and solos at impossible tempos - and even after a stroke in 1993, the indomitable keyboard giant fought on to rebuild much of his sweeping technical authority. The standard Peterson trio offering would be the uptempo tune (either a standard or an original that sounded like a standard), starting either solo or with minimal accompaniment. It would grow in volume from both piano and drums in the second chorus, and by the third become an unbroken cascade of runs the length of the keyboard, resolving in thumping chords, thumbs-down-the-keys ripples and churning repeated phrases.

With cavalier glee, Peterson would apply this treatment to tunes ideally suited to it - like Anything Goes, or Sweet Georgia Brown - and to those that weren't, since he would often subject ballads to same burnups, bizarrely relapsing them into caresses at the end. Yet there was a true artist in Peterson too. Deliciously liquid arpeggios and arching, yearning phrases would sometimes emerge once he was sure he had given his audiences what they initially expected, and such contrastingly patient and spacious music might then allow the eloquence of his frequently superb accompanists to flower, notably the work of the double-bass giant Ray Brown.

Peterson had received classical piano lessons from the age of six in his native Montreal; the impetus came from his father, a railway porter and self-taught pianist. At 14, Oscar won a local radio talent contest, and worked in his late teens on a weekly Montreal radio show - and he was also a regular member of Canada's Johnny Holmes Orchestra, playing in an elegant swing keyboard style drawn from Teddy Wilson, Tatum and Nat "King" Cole. Though he had studied trumpet too, childhood illness led him to abandon it for the piano, and he practised constantly, an irrepressible enthusiasm mingling with natural gifts to build a fully two-handed technique (some 40s jazz pianists made relatively perfunctory use of the left hand) that rivalled that of classical recitalists. Though Cole was perhaps the artist Peterson felt most in sympathy with stylistically, the speed, orchestral richness and lyrical sweep of his music made the virtuoso Tatum the only fitting comparison once the Canadian's mature style formed.

Peterson resisted offers to come to America at first, but made his US debut at Carnegie Hall with Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic in September 1949. Granz saw in Peterson just his kind of charismatic, communicative performer who reaches out from the subculture of jazz to a much wider audience, and he managed the pianist's career through the 1950s, recorded him, and regularly toured him with Jazz At The Philharmonic. Initially the pianist adopted the Cole trio's methods, frequently playing simply with guitar and double bass and allowing his own unerring rhythmic sense and driving swing to take the place of drums. Through the 1950s, Peterson's bassist was usually Brown, with Herb Ellis on guitar - but from 1958, Ellis was replaced by the subtle drummer Ed Thigpen, one of the few percussionists who could complement the storming Peterson without appearing to compete with him for the maximum number of sounds squeezable into a bar. The group recorded extensively, and Peterson's reworkings of classic standards were so exuberant and upbeat that his recordings found their way into the collections of jazz fans and fascinated non-buffs alike.

In 1960, Peterson founded the Advanced School of Contemporary Music in Toronto - assisted by Brown, Thigpen and composer/clarinettist Phil Nimmons - and he remained there for the next three years, devoting much of his time to running the institution. But he continued to perform and record, and developed another string to his considerable bow by singing on a Cole dedication, With Respect to Nat, in 1965.

In the 1970s, though jazz was in retreat against the swelling popular and commercial pressure of rock'n'roll, Peterson continued to prove that his talents were robust enough to be less affected by the changing climate than most. He took to performing unaccompanied, and delivered astonishingly self-sufficient performances in which he frequently seemed to resemble two or three pianists playing simultaneously. By this time one of the most secure of mainstream international jazz stars, Peterson was now invited to perform in all kinds of contexts, including work with symphony orchestras, and guest appearances on many all-star jazz get-togethers with artists including Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Clark Terry, and guitarist Joe Pass. In later years Peterson frequently worked in duet with bassist Niels-Henning 0rsted Pedersen, a remarkable virtuoso of complementary gifts to the pianist's. Pared-down accompaniment always suited Peterson best, since his devastating technique frequently meant that the more musicians there were in a Peterson group, the more they would all try to keep up, like a party full of non-stop talkers.

Peterson had a prolific output as a recording artist, in some years releasing as many as half a dozen albums. Affinity (1963) was one of his biggest sellers, but his catalogue includes interpretations of the songbooks of Cole Porter and Duke Ellington, a highly successful single on Jimmy Forrest's compulsive Night Train (perfectly suited to Peterson's churningly machine-like style) and 1964's Canadiana Suite, an extended original nominated as one of the best jazz compositions of 1965 by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. Peterson furnished the soundtrack to the movie Play It Again Sam, hosted a TV chat show a 1974 tour of Russia, and influenced musicians as different as Steve Winwood, Dudley Moore and Joe Zawinul. A dedicated spreader of the word, Peterson also published educational works for student jazz pianists.

Though Peterson has sometimes been criticised as a musician in thrall to his own runaway technique, he remained a great virtuoso of piano jazz, and an equally effective populariser of the music among those who might otherwise not have encountered it. He was the kind of jazz musician who invited a sometimes-daunted general public in, and he always performed as if making the music was the most fun it was possible for a human being to have. When he performed to a packed Royal Albert Hall two years ago, Peterson delivered a startlingly ambitious programme for a man who looked as if the journey from the dressing-room to the piano stool had been a considerable effort of the will. That show could have been a wistful tribute to what once was - but with musicality, courage, skill and energy, Peterson made it a performance that stood proud on its own two feet. It was the story of his life.

In that same year of 2005, he became the first living person other than the monarch to feature on a Canadian commemorative stamp, and he saw his name adopted for streets, concert halls and schools. He is survived by his fourth wife, Kelly, their daughter Celine, and six children from previous marriages.

Oscar Emmanuel Peterson, jazz pianist, born August 15 1925; died December 23 2007

Contributor

John Fordham

The GuardianTramp

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