Oscar Peterson Joins James P. Johnson (music)
Perhaps the first concert I ever attended with my own money was to see Oscar Peterson play solo piano at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley in 1977. The hall was mostly full and Peterson played a concert of standards in a classical concert setting. By that I mean no one was drinking, the audience was expected to stay mostly silent while the musician was playing, and Oscar Peterson wore a dark suit and talked very little if at all between numbers. I’d heard several of the Canadian pianist’s albums at that point, but his music was even more exhilirating in concert. When he came back a couple years later, I went to see him again.
Peterson died at the age of 82 this week near Toronto. Probably best remembered as the piano solo heir to Art Tatum, Peterson was the rare serious jazz musician who could be immediately appreciated by non-jazz aficionados. I remember when I was going through my first Oscar Peterson phase (I’d have his music on at loud volumes a couple times a day on my turntable) that friends would call and comment on whatever was playing in the background whenever I answered the phone. Peterson’s style was straight ahead and virtuosic. In fact, the biggest knock on Peterson, the musician, was that he didn’t do anything terribly “new”. It seemed the only thing unique about Oscar Peterson’s music was the fact that he could play faster and with greater technical skill than any other mainstream jazz pianist.
To a certain extent, it just wasn’t cool for a real jazz fan to love Oscar Peterson. Simply put, there was no learning curve to being hip to a piano player who could play so many notes so fluidly. It is true that he might have possessed equivalent technical prowess to the sainted Art Tatum, but Peterson never pushed the harmonic envelope the way Tatum would or eventually the equally virtuosic Cecil Taylor would. Just as damning for many jazz insiders, Peterson’s personal life stayed under control throughout his eighty two year life. This may account for the fact that he was one of the last surviving musicians to have played in the Jazz at the Philharmonic Series from the late 40’s. About the most reprehensible thing he ever did was to record an album of his vocals. Actually, he wasn’t a bad singer, it was more that he was much better at the instrument that ran through his fingers. Fwiw, Nat King Cole was along with Tatum one of Peterson’s early role models. The vocal album, "With Respect to Nat", homaged the influence of the great pianist who became the first black entertainer to headline a national television show.
Peterson spent most of his career being managed by Norman Granz whose musician clients generally loved him because he was one of the first jazz promoters to get his artists real money and who is sometimes reviled by jazz cognoscenti for essentially dumbing down the music. Granz often encouraged performers to play very fast, loud, and with most any other instrumentalist whose name would sell tickets. Although Peterson was a very competent jazz composer in his own right (the Canadiana Suite), the Granz connection sealed his fate to be best known as an instrumentalist. In particular, Peterson’s got cornered into his being the pianist whose technique honestly rivaled Art Tatum’s.
Having grown up in Northern California, I remember too well the succession of fast-power hitting outfielders who found themselves labeled the “next Willie Mays”. While many of them like Barry’s father Bobby Bonds had serious talent and even comparable physical skills, the label always turned out to be a burden. That said, Peterson more than established his own identity as a jazz pianist. In the days when you could measure a jazz musician’s stature by looking to see how big his bin was at the record store, Peterson’s albums for sale in any store that had any kind of jazz section always rivaled Miles Davis and Stan Getz’s. When Granz came out of retirement after selling Verve records and started Pablo Records in the mid-seventies, Peterson was essentially the house pianist. Granz did things like pair Peterson with every living trumpet player who didn’t play like Lester Bowie and seemingly released a new Oscar Peterson album every month. Fwiw, the best of those was Peterson’s duets with Dizzy Gillespie. Telarc, one of the early audiophile labels, also recorded Peterson repeatedly.
In those days, a successful jazz album might sell seven to eight thousand copies. I have no idea how many albums Oscar Peterson ultimately had his name on as a leader, but he probably had more eight to twenty thousand unit titles than any musician in jazz. There is such a thing as being over-recorded at a musical level and there were certainly times when you could hear Oscar Peterson do his thing on record and it wouldn’t move you much because, well, it wasn’t a whole lot different for three other albums you’d heard him on that same year. It wasn’t quite like Ray Bryant who often played essentially the same solo on some of his records, but Oscar Peterson was never a musical restless spirit who probed the boundaries of his music.
That said, he was the kind of musician who swung consistently and whose tone and style were almost instantly recognizable. Peterson’s style was florid, dense, and bluesy. He did not appear to be a man of emotional extremes and his music seemed to reflect that. While much of the jazz of the sixties and seventies took on an angry edge, Oscar Peterson’s music stayed upbeat. It was the sort of piano that made you smile and dance despite the world rather than an attempt to channel all of its complexity and pain.
Over the years, I literally wore out five Oscar Peterson records.
1) He recorded a series of solos for Manfred Eicher on a Boesendorfer somewhere in Germany. The albums are known as “My Favorite Instrument” and include some of the best sounding piano recording ever done. Peterson’s technique is in full force, but it’s very relaxed, intimate, and yet at points it pushes just a bit harder than his more usual albums.
Years ago, I had a girlfriend who loved jazz as well, but her tastes were more mainstream than mine. This was the album we always agreed on. I always liked the sheer physicality of his version of Ellington and Tizol’s Perdido and the near cocktail-pensive romanticism of Little Boy Blue and If I Should Lose You.
2) In the mid-sixties Granz had Oscar Peterson record several albums devoted to songs from a single Broadway show. It sounds like a terrible idea artistically, particularly for an artist who already tended to the great middle middle as much as OP, but for some reason West Side Story turned out to be maybe his best trio recording. I love the way he went up tempo with I Feel Pretty and found a way to swing it until it soared well over Natalie Wood’s roof top.
3) Peterson was generally too busy a pianist to be an effective accompanist and beside he was successful enough as a soloist that he rarely had to play backup. One of the great vocal albums in jazz was Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald’s series of duets (not the Porgy and Bess version though) on which the Oscar Peterson trio served as the backup band. Sometimes Granz’s attempts to match up jazz superstars either on album or stage were tasteless messes, but this one was magical. I used to use the recording of Cheek to Cheek to test stereo equipment. The gravely quality of Armstrong’s voice matched up perfectly to the almost preternatural clarity of Ella’s voice. In the meantime, Peterson’s energetic fills mesh into what may be the greatest “happy music” recorded jazz session ever.
4) Oscar Peterson and Count Basie seem like a very unlikely match on the piano because Count Basie had maybe the simples swing piano style of them all. A lot of Basie solos seem to be single notes or simple right hand chord voicings that just happen to be played at exactly the right time. Peterson, on the other “hands”could and would play more notes in a single chorus than Basie did in a fifty year career in music. Satch and Josh was yet another of the great joyful jazz albums with the two pianists throwing fours at one another over the top of the Count Basie rhythm section including Freddie Green. Peterson’s playing is an endless rush of words and Basie’s economical style was all punctuation and space. It feels like the two completed one another musically.
5) The Trio was one of at least a couple Peterson albums that used the name. This is the Pablo recording with Nils Henning Orsted Pedersen (the Danish Bassist) and Joe Pass, the guitarist in a live club setting. All three musicians are of the play a lot of notes but stay within some recognizable key school of jazz. For whatever reason, instead of running over one another a certain musicianly respect and compatibility comes across on the album on tracks like Secret Love and Blues Etude. It’s also an example of a trio pianist playing what Peterson himself referred to as “the whole instrument”.
Sometimes it’s just fun to hear three musicians swing while staying in the atmosphere.
It’s hard to say where Oscar Peterson fits into the history of the music or in some ways even into the history of jazz piano. His critics can argue persuasively that the history of jazz would be essentially unchanged had Peterson never left Canada. He never changed the boundaries of the music and his sound is closer to James P. Johnson (another one of his heroes) than it was to Tatum. Peterson, however, is the guy who provided a bridge for non-jazz fans into the music. He served well as an ambassador for those who believed that jazz could both treated seriously as concert music and that one could make a good living playing it without going “commercial”. The jazz world will undoubtedly miss Oscar Peterson. More important a lot of jazz fans, including me, would have missed the pleasures of jazz had it not been for hearing Oscar Peterson.
Labels: Oscar Peterson jazz piano