Oscar Peterson was born August 15, 1925 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. His parents were immigrants from the British West Indies and Virgin Islands. His father, Daniel Peterson, was boatswain on a merchant ship when he met Olivia John in Montreal, where she worked as a cook and housekeeper for an English family. Daniel gave up the sailing work and began working as a porter for the Canadian Pacific Railway. He and Olivia married and stayed in Montreal as their family grew.
Oscar was the fourth of five children. Their father insisted that they all learn a musical instrument, and Oscar began to study the trumpet. A childhood bout of tuberculosis forced a fortuitous switch to the piano, under the tutelage of his father and his older sister, Daisy. It soon became apparent that Oscar’s talent surpassed the capabilities of home teaching, and he was sent first to teacher Lou Hooper and then to the gifted Hungarian classical pianist, Paul deMarky. A warm and respectful musical friendship developed between the two, and with Mr. deMarky’s guidance Oscar’s mastery of the instrument grew, along with his dedication to and command of his talent.
The performance career of Oscar Peterson began while he was still a young teenager in high school, as pianist with the Johnny Holmes Orchestra in Montreal. After a few years with the Orchestra, he formed his own trio, the first in a format he maintained throughout his lifelong career. With the trio, he quickly gained fame and popularity throughout Canada. His appearances at the Alberta Lounge in Montreal were broadcast live on the radio. In 1949 impresario Norman Granz heard one of those broadcasts, went to the Alberta Lounge and enticed Mr. Peterson into making a surprise guest appearance with Granz’ all-star “Jazz at the Philharmonic” at Carnegie Hall later that year. Leaving the audience awestruck, Oscar joined JATP in 1950 as a full-time touring member. He formed a piano-bass duo with Ray Brown as well, and began recording for Granz at the same time. He also added Barney Kessel as the first of the guitarists with whom he would create trios, returning to the group format he loved.
He was voted Jazz Pianist of the Year in 1950 by the Downbeat Readers’ Poll, a title he garnered for an additional twelve years. He toured the globe extensively with Jazz at the Philharmonic as well as with his own trio.
During the busy touring years in the early 1960s he founded a jazz school in Toronto called the Advanced School of Contemporary Music. This attracted students from all over the world. For a few months each year he and his trio, along with Phil Nimmons, a clarinetist from Toronto, would conduct classes at the school. The demands of his touring schedule forced closure of the school after a few years, but students still fondly recall their experiences there.
Oscar Peterson began composing while still a member of the Johnny Holmes Orchestra, and as time progressed he devoted more and more time to composition, while still maintaining a vigorous performance schedule. His “Hymn To Freedom” became one of the crusade songs of the Civil Rights Movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the United States. It is still performed frequently by choirs worldwide. He also composed a salute to his beloved Canada, “The Canadiana Suite,” in the early 1960s. He has composed music for motion pictures, including the Canadian film “Big North,” made for Ontario Place in Toronto, and the feature film “The Silent Partner,” for which he won the Genie Award (Canadian Oscar award) for best original film score in 1978. He composed work for the National Film Board of Canada. His collaboration with filmmaker Norman McLaren on the film “Begone Dull Care” won awards all over the world. He composed the soundtrack for the film “Fields of Endless Day,” about U.S. slaves using the Underground Railroad to escape to Canada. Other compositional projects include a jazz ballet, a suite called “Africa,” and the Easter Suite, commissioned by the BBC in London and broadcast live on Good Friday in 1984, with annual broadcasts after that. “A Salute to Bach” for the composer’s 300th birthday, premiered with trio and orchestra at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall in 1985. He composed a suite for the Olympic Arts Festival of the Calgary Winter Olympics in 1988, and music for the opening ceremony of the Skydome in Toronto. In addition, Oscar Peterson composed more than 400 other pieces, many of which he performed and others continue to perform. Some of these compositions remain unpublished, but hopefully they will be published for future generations to hear.
Oscar Peterson has an extensive discography of his trio and quartet recordings, as well as his recordings with many of the other jazz greats. His varied albums include recordings with Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins and Joe Pass. His worldwide performances and his recordings, particularly those with his trios and quartets, brought him recognition from numerous places all around the world.
Mr. Peterson also made many television appearances during his lifetime. He hosted five different talk show series, and Oscar’s widespread appeal led to his interviewing a variety of guests. The unusual range of personalities to appear on these programs included the former Prime Minister of England, the Rt. Hon. Sir Edward Heath, Twiggy, Anthony Burgess as well as many musicians. He also appeared in television commercials “Tears Are Not Enough,” a musical fundraiser for African famine relief.
Preferring not to use his celebrity status to sway public opinions, Mr. Peterson nevertheless remained dedicated to the belief that his native Canada has a responsibility in leading the world in equality and justice. With this in mind, he took a firm stand to promote the cause of human rights fair treatment for Canada’s multicultural community. In recognition of this effort, Mr. Peterson was promoted to Companion of the Order of Canada, Canada’s highest civilian honor. He had been inducted as an Officer of the Order in 1972.
During his life and career Mr. Peterson received many awards and honors. These include the Praemium Imperiale (the Arts equivalent of the Nobel Prize, presented by the Japan Art Association), the UNESCO International Music Prize, 8 Grammy Awards (including a Lifetime Achievement Grammy), the 1993 Glenn Gould Prize, of which he was the third recipient, the first chosen by unanimous decision and the first ever non-classical musician, and many honorary degrees.
Despite a stroke in 1993 that debilitated his left hand, Oscar Peterson was determined to continue performing, recording and composing. Within a year he had recovered and resumed his worldwide concert appearance schedule.
Oscar Peterson lived in the quiet city of Mississauga, Ontario, Canada. His hobbies included fishing, photography and astronomy. He was an avid audiophile and synthesist, as music was not only his profession but also his hobby. His home contained his own private recording studio, allowing him to work and still enjoy his family life. His passion for life, love and music remained strong for his entire life, and he continued to perform until shortly before his death. Oscar Peterson passed away at his home on the morning of December 23, 2007. His legacy lives on through his music.