“O.P.”, known for his exquisite unaccompanied piano solos, had a style that fell somewhere between swing and bop. He was so gifted that many skilled pianists found him difficult to emulate. Although a pianist, he also played the electric piano, organ, and clavichord at times. He also sang on rare occasions and it was noted that he sounded much like Nat King Cole. Unlike Guy Lombardo and Hank Snow, Peterson chose to remain living in Canada until his death.
The Canadian Jazz legend (often overlooked as a composer) grew up in the poor St. Henri district of Montreal. His father, an amateur organist, had all five of his children study music, each in turn teaching the next youngest. Oscar’s first instructor, therefore, was his elder sister Daisy.
After nine years of learning the keys, he won a talent show at age 14 and was invited to star on a weekly Montreal radio program. He also gained experience and exposure as a feature of Johnny Holmes’ Orchestra, a popular dance band. In 1945, Peterson began a series of 32 boogie-woogie style recordings with RCA Victor, and he toured the country the following year.
In 1947, Peterson left the Orchestra forming his own trio who played the Alberta Lounge in Montreal. In 1949, he met American impresario Norman Granz who suggested he make a U.S. debut as a surprise guest at the Philharmonic (all-star troupe of American musicians) concert in New York City’s Carnegie Hall. His brief performance on the show caused a sensation and his international career was launched.
Oscar Peterson began a tour with Jazz at the Philharmonic capturing the souls of the American public. Chicago jazz magazine Down Beat conducted readers’ polls in the early 50s which placed Peterson in the number one spot. He made his first American recordings with Granz’s label Verve performing a series of duets with either Ray Brown or Major Holley on bass. His version of “Tenderly” became a hit. He ended up forming a trio that went through some personnel changes over the years. The band was a piano-guitar-bass combination until 1958, when it became a piano-bass-drums outfit. That year, Peterson relocated from Montreal to Toronto.
He teamed up with a number of big names in Jazz from time to time: Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Count Basie to name a few. In 1963, he recorded his most significant work, The Canadiana Suite, an eight-part survey of the country’s geographical features. He kept a rigorous international touring schedule well into the 80s but, after a stroke in 1993 that affected the use of his left hand, reduced the number of his performances. By 2001, Peterson had completed more than 130 albums.
Oscar Peterson was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1978. His album If You Could See Me Now won a Juno Award in 1987. He also won a number of Grammy Awards, including a “lifetime achievement” award in 1997.