CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Oscar Peterson, who sat atop the world of jazz piano for decades with his driving two-handed swing, technical wizardry and rapid-fire solos, has died, a friend of the musician said on Monday. He was 82.
One of jazz’s most recorded musicians, both as leader and accompanist, Peterson rose from working-class beginnings in Montreal — where his father let him pursue music only if he promised to be “the best” — to become a major influence on generations of top-flight musicians.
“He was very shy, very down to earth. You didn’t know you were with a world musician by any means,” said Hazel McCallion, a friend and the mayor of Mississauga, Ontario, a Toronto suburb where Peterson lived.
McCallion said that Peterson died late on Sunday and that she was informed by Peterson’s family. CBC Television said he died at home of kidney failure.
Since blasting onto the world stage with a famous appearance at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1949, the beefy high school dropout amassed armfuls of honorary degrees and awards, including a 1997 Grammy for Lifetime Achievement and an International Jazz Hall of Fame Award.
Canada made him a Companion of the Order of Canada, the country’s highest civilian honor, as well as the first living Canadian to be depicted on a stamp.
Peterson kept an exhaustive touring schedule throughout his career with groups featuring such players as bassist and longtime collaborator Ray Brown, drummer Ed Thigpen and guitarist Herb Ellis.
Peterson took a break from performing in the early 1990s after a stroke that weakened his left hand, but resumed some performances after two years. Even with a weak left hand, critics said he outshone many pianists with two good ones.
Peterson was born on August 15, 1925, the fourth of five children of a Canadian Pacific Railway porter who played piano. The family lived in Little Burgundy, a black enclave in Montreal, where Peterson’s elder sister, Daisy, gave her siblings their first piano lessons.
Musicians Teddy Wilson and Nat “King” Cole were among early influences. When Peterson was a teenager his father played him a recording of Art Tatum — the lightning-fast pianist to whom Peterson would later be compared — which intimidated him so much he stayed away from the piano for a month.
At 14, he began performing for radio and played in a school band that included trumpeter Maynard Ferguson.
His career on the rise, Peterson asked his father if he could drop out of school. The elder Peterson said he would not “let him leave high school to be a jazz piano player. You have to be the best, there is no second best.”
He took it to heart.
“When I started I had great belief, and there were quite a few bruises and disappointments along the way, but I never lost the belief,” he told Reuters in 1999.
Peterson famously got his big break in the late 1940s when impresario and record producer Norman Granz was in a taxi en route to the Montreal airport, with the radio tuned to a live show featuring Peterson’s trio. Granz demanded the cabbie make a beeline to the nightclub, where he met Peterson.
Soon afterward Granz brought him to New York for one of his “Jazz at the Philharmonic” concerts, a showcase for such stars as Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie. Peterson stepped into the big time with a duet with bassist Brown.
“His career just accelerated from that point (1949) on,” said jazz pianist and composer Joe Sealy. “He’ll be probably most remembered as just an absolutely exquisite and amazing jazz piano player.”
He became a regular session player in the 1950s for Granz’s Verve Records while leading trios, first with bass and guitar, and later with drummers such as Thigpen, Louis Hayes, Bobby Durham and Martin Drew.
Accolades followed him everywhere, but Peterson always had to fend off some critics who believed his technical prowess outweighed his ability to express emotion on the keyboard.
“Technique is something you use to make your ideas listenable,” he once told jazz writer Len Lyons. “You learn to play the instrument so you have a musical vocabulary, and you practice to get your technique to the point you need to express yourself, depending on how heavy your ideas are.”
Among his many recordings, he once cited his 1962 album “Night Train,” with Brown and Thigpen, and a 1964 ode to his native land, “Canadiana Suite,” as his favorites.
Peterson could also be a social activist. In the 1980s, he spearheaded a campaign to convince Canadian advertisers to make television commercials that better represented minorities.
(Additional reporting by Natalie Armstrong)