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Jazz Maharajah
by Ray Filip Oscar

OSCAR PETERSON was born with two hands ? though 20 or 30 fingers often seem to sprint across his keyboard. "His hands and wrists dazzled with gold gold cufflinks, gold wristwatch band, gold identification bracelet, and large beveled gold wedding band on his left hand." So writes Gene Lees in his comprehensive biography of Canada's most famous jazz musician.

Peterson was raised in the grey St. Antoine district of Montreal. His father, Daniel Peterson, worked as a sleeping car porter for the CPR. He would give all five of his children strict practice schedules for piano and trumpet. Returning from Toronto?Montreal runs, the elder Peterson would take a strap to any one of his kids who had slowed down their execution of The Minute Waltz or other classics. He disapproved of jazz. Oscar admits that his brother Fred, who died of tuberculosis at 15, was "the best pianist in the family." Oscar himself had been hospitalized with TB as a child, which forced him to give up trumpet and concentrate on piano. Gifted with absolute pitch and total recall, Peterson could supposedly play Schubert and Scarlatti at the age of six, when "his hands would reach an octave and a fifth." Arthritis has afflicted Peterson's hands since youth, and he has been "in great pain while performing."

He served his jazz apprenticeship by studying with the Harlem pianist Lou Hooper (buddy of Fats Waller and Willie "the Lion" Smith), by filling in for Steep Wade at Rockhead's Paradise, and by swinging with the Johnny Holmes Orchestra in places such as the Ritz Carlton. Racial incidents naturally dogged his rise to fame. There were ugly episodes such as being refused a haircut in Hamilton; walking away and telling a cop in Montreal who was about to arrest him "you'll have to use that gun" after Peterson had been assaulted by a taxi passenger who had called him a "dirty nigger"; or the cop in the American South who had ordered him to pick up the small change which a diner counterman had thrown on the floor after Peterson had paid for cigarettes with a 20?dollar bill (bassist Ray Brown's Cadillac was waiting outside but nobody inside believed that Peterson had earned the money legitimately). Since discrimination in the United States is an "apartheid of custom, not law," Peterson used his overpowering technical mastery as a weapon to blow away the wall of white musicians in radio and television studios. Jazz provided the only road to stardom for black instrumentalists in the '50s, and Peterson decided "to frighten the hell out of everybody pianistically."

Dizzy Gillespie's eyes widened "like saucers with disbelief' after hearing Peterson play What is This Thing Called Love? Duke Ellington called him "the maharajah of the piano." And his idol, Art Tatum, after listening to Oscar's rendition of his signature tune, Tea for Two, said: "I'm an egotist. As long as I'm alive, I don't figure I'm going to let you have it. But you have it and you're next after me."

Norman Granz, his flamboyant manager, also became a significant figure in Peterson's development. Granz, a self?made millionaire at 31, had "made more money exclusively from jazz than anyone else in its relatively short and turbulent history." He gave Peterson his first big break at Carnegie Hall in 1949. Granz was the first to issue "live", recordings of concerts complete with applause and other audience noises in his lucrative jazz at the Philharmonic series. He? saw himself as an activist, rather than just another tycoon. He was the first manager to demand integrated audiences, as well as the best hotels and airlines for his acts ? no more restless bus rides and sleeping in flophouses under Jim Crow's wing.

Oscar Peterson described his trio as a "pressure group" in the aesthetic sense. Peterson would challenge guitarist Herb Ellis to break his linear approach to rhythm and to follow his improvised harmonic clusters since there was no drummer. And if Ray Brown complained that a certain passage. could not be played on the bass, Peterson would reply: "Well I think it can." As a result, their group interdynamics grew "tight enough to be waterproof" Both Brown and Ellis consider their stint with Peterson as the musical and emotional peak of their careers.

Peterson, the practical joker, would untune the strings of his sidemen. He had embarrassed Ray Brown on stage in Japan once when. his bass loosely flapped "dunk, dunk." To get even, Brown went out between shows and came back with a bunch of little steel balls he had won at a Perchinco game. Instead of trading the balls in for cigarettes or other prizes, he scattered them across the wires of Peterson's piano. When Oscar sat down to play a tender ballad, every note went "brrr, brrr, brrr, ... like a whorehouse piano."

Peterson, the teacher, emphasized two things: how to play and what to play. The how involved "five t's": touch, time, tone, technique, taste. The what:harmonic progressions, runs, rests in ballads, and piano arranging. He did not want to produce imitations of himself, but to encourage individualism and creativity. "We're not building robots," he said of his Advanced School of Contemporary Music. Peterson has been honoured with 10 doctorates.

Peterson, the perfectionist, claims that his best recordings were made doing salon recitals on the estate of German millionaire Brunner?Schwerhouse. Petersori had access to 4 heavy, nine?foot,, concert grand German Steinway that suited his bravura style. All parties. agree that one of the? resulting albums, The Way I Really Play, is a masterpiece.

Critics have lambasted his virtuosity as too "mechanical," not appreciating the essential hurt informing the talent. The only area of non?success in a truly remarkable life is that of his three failed marriages. Again, Peterson is exceptional in admitting that his devotion to music has prevented him from being the husband he could have been. "I made some bad friends during the time and busted up three marriages. That's okay, I wanted to do what I did. I'm sorry that I could not fully understand the needs of the women that were in MY life."

Touching, timely, clear?toned, technically accomplished, and very tasteful, The Will to Swing is a, biography equal in excellence to the subject of this highly entertaining book.


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