Oscar Peterson: Simply the Best
“I don’t call many people geniuses, but Oscar Peterson is definitely one.” - Quincy Jones
Canadian musical genius Oscar Peterson (1925 – 2007) ranks as one
of the world’s greatest jazz virtuosos. His musical brilliance continues
to influence generations of musicians everywhere. A legend in his
own time, Oscar entertained the world with is mastery over the
piano for over 40 years.
Born on August 15, 1925, Oscar grew up in a limestone house on
Montreal’s Delisle Street. He was the fourth of five children to his
parents, Daniel and Kathleen. Daniel, a porter with Canadian Pacific
Railways, was a self-educated piano player who taught all his
children music during their younger years. In high school, Oscar
Figure 1: Drs. Oscar Peterson (left) and Anatoly Larkin studied under the accomplished classical pianist, Hungarian Paul de
(right), March 26, 2007
Marky, who taught Oscar “technique and speedy fingers.”
When he was 14, Oscar’s older sister got him to audition for a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (“CBC”) national
amateur contest. Oscar went on to win, a success that opened many doors. He gave multiple performances on a local
Montreal radio station, and went on to perform on a national CBC broadcast called The Happy Gang. When it became
clear that music was his passion and that he had a gift, Oscar received his father’s permission to drop out of school.
His international fame was launched at a famous jazz concert in New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1949. Impresario Norman
Granz invited his young friend to step up to the stage and play something. Oscar and bassist Ray Brown wowed the
audience with three songs, still talked about today.
Oscar’s hero and mentor was jazz pianist Art Tatum, who died at a young age in 1956. Oscar first heard Art’s playing
when his dad brought him home a recording of Tatum playing the Tiger Rag. Oscar was stunned by the virtuosity, and
asked his dad who “those guys” playing were. His dad replied that it was just one person playing: Art Tatum. Oscar says
he gave up practicing for a week, dejected by “the competition.”
The Zenph team visited Oscar at his home in the spring in the spring of 2007. The visit was hosted by the Yahama
Canada team, to bring Oscar the uniquely joyful experience of sitting in the room and hearing Tatum play again. A
Disklavier Pro grand piano was set up in the corner of Oscar’s living room, beneath dozens of his honors, plaques, and
To test the setup, the Yamaha team played high-resolution re-performances of Peterson himself, created by Zenph.
Oscar’s manager Ron was downstairs during the setup and heard the Disklavier Pro playing. He breathlessly ran up the
stairs, saying “Oscar, that sounds just like you playing.”
And Oscar said: “That is me playing.”
Oscar was an active and entertaining host, along with his gracious wife Kelly. They regaled the Zenph and Yamaha teams
with stores from his career. Zenph brought their greatest gift: the opportunity to hear his idol, Art Tatum, play the piano
again in his living room.
Zenph started with the re-performance of Tatum’s living-room party recording of Too Marvelous for Words, made in
1955. Oscar had lots of comments: “you’ll never hear playing like that again,” “they broke the mold after Tatum,” “not
even Horowitz had that level of virtuosity,” and so on. Next was Tatum playing a couple of Gershwin pieces: Someone to
Watch over Me and The Man I Love. At some point, Oscar was wiping tears from his eyes, and Kelly went out and got
him a clean white handkerchief.
Then came Tatum’s I Know That You Know, and there were smiles, chuckles, grins, and laughter all around. Tatum’s
playing in this piece bring such joy, and it continued to work its magic. Oscar told the story about his hearing Tatum’s
recording of Tiger Rag the first time, and we asked “would you like the hear Tatum play it now?” So, we played it, to the
amazement of all in the room. Then we played it again.
“Lots of pianists are going to commit suicide when they hear your new
album,” he observed several times. Oscar pointed out a picture of him
with Art Tatum at the Hollywood Bowl – a picture right behind the piano.
“That was my last meeting with Art,” he observed, “and he gave me the
biggest compliment. He said, ‘this is my time now. You are next.’”
Oscar told an extended story about an Art Tatum recording session with
Norman Granz. Apparently, Art had a wire coming out of his ear all
throughout the session. Well, Art was a Laker’s basketball fan, and while
he was making one of the seminal up-tempo piano recordings in jazz
Figure 2: Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson, at the history, he was simultaneously listening to a Laker’s basketball
Hollywood Bowl game with one ear.
Paul de Marky had studied with Franz Liszt, and Oscar was grounded with extensive classical music training. He told
stories of always pressing the point “that music is music”: he rejects those classical piano teachers who look down on
jazz. At one point, Oscar Peterson was Chancellor of York University in Toronto, and remembered piano teachers there
with a low opinion of jazz. He said: “fine – I’ll play you any piece by Debussy, you just name it.” They named one of
Debussy’s compositions. Oscar sat down and played it brilliantly from memory, and that was the end of the discussion.
Oscar played many years with bassist Ray Brown. Ray apparently became quite nervous when Art would walk into a
room where they were playing, and his voice would become high-pitched. On a few occasions with Art in the room,
Oscar would be shaking like a leaf.
Oscar’s inspirational career took him from Montreal working-class neighborhoods to some of the world’s greatest
stages. He performed thousands of concerts on six continents, and made over 200 recordings. The vast majority of his
performance were with jazz trios and other ensembles; only two of his recordings were for solo piano. Oscar Peterson
toured the world and performed with jazz giants Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Dizzy
Gillespie, Art Tatum, and Charlie Parker. He agarnered dozens of awards and honors, including eight Grammy Awards, a
Genie Award, honorary doctorates, a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award, an International Jazz Hall of Fame
Award, and the Order of Canada. Oscar Peterson’s compositions range from jazz and orchestral to film and television
scores, including the famous Canadiana Suite and the stirring Hymn to Freedom.
Oscar Peterson remains and enormous source of price for Canada and the world. Zenph Sound Innovations is proud to
offer re-performances of Oscar’s spectacular playing.