Charles J. Gans
NEW YORK - Oscar Peterson's dazzling keyboard technique, commanding sense of swing and mastery of different piano styles from boogie woogie to bebop could leave even his most accomplished peers awestruck.
His death over the weekend brought forth tributes from jazz pianists spanning the generations. He was 82.
Fellow jazz piano legend Dave Brubeck said he was "saddened by the news of Oscar's passing". Peterson died on Sunday of kidney failure at his home in Mississauga, Toronto, with his wife and daughter at his side.
The 87-year-old Brubeck recalled the first time he ever heard a Peterson recording shortly after jazz impresario Norman Granz introduced the Canadian pianist to American audiences at a 1949 Carnegie Hall concert.
"Norman Granz had brought the record to DJ Jimmy Lyons at NBC in San Francisco. 'Guess who?' he asked. I was in awe. It sounded like Art Tatum reincarnated. Every jazz pianist would soon know that Oscar was a master," Brubeck said on Tuesday.
Tatum was a major influence on Peterson. As a teenager growing up in a poor Montreal neighbourhood, Peterson was so intimidated by Tatum's breakneck tempos and cascading runs that he didn't touch the piano for a month after his father played a Tatum recording for him.
Brubeck recalled that in 1993 he was one of three jazz pianists asked to fill in at a Carnegie Hall concert after Peterson cancelled an appearance because of a stroke.
"Ahmad Jamal, McCoy Tyner and I were asked to come to Carnegie Hall and take Oscar's place. I'm not sure that the three of us playing at the top of our form were able to fill his shoes, but we gave it a try. Oscar, as Duke Ellington would say, was 'beyond category'."
Another piano legend Herbie Hancock, 67, said Peterson's influence could be found "in the generations that came after him".
"Oscar Peterson redefined swing for modern jazz pianists for the latter half of the 20th century up until today," Hancock said. "I consider him the major influence that formed my roots in jazz piano-playing. He mastered the balance between technique, hard blues grooving, and tenderness. No one will ever be able to take his place."
Peterson had a similar effect on a young Diana Krall growing up in Nanaimo, British Columbia, who was spotted playing in local clubs by bassist Ray Brown, a longtime member of the Oscar Peterson Trio, who encouraged her to move to Los Angeles.
"Oscar Peterson was the reason I became a jazz pianist," the 43-year-old Krall told the Los Angeles Times. "In my high school yearbook it says that my goal is to become a jazz pianist like Oscar Peterson.
"I didn't know then we'd become such close friends over the years," the singer-pianist said. "We were together at his house in October, playing and singing together. Now it's almost impossible for me to think of him in the past tense."
While Peterson was known for his lightning-fast keyboard runs, jazz piano veteran Hank Jones called attention to his finesse and deft touch on slow-tempo tunes.
"He had a beautiful approach to ballads, which a lot of pianists forget," said 89-year-old Jones.
Marian McPartland, the host of public radio's Piano Jazz series, called Peterson "the finest technician that I have seen". She recalled first meeting Peterson when she and her husband, jazz cornetist Jimmy McPartland, opened for him at the Colonial Tavern in Toronto in the 1940s.
"He was always wonderful to me, and I have always felt very close to him," the 89-year-old jazz pianist said. "I played at his tribute concert at Carnegie Hall earlier this year and performed Tenderly, my favourite piece of his."
Composer and pianist Roger Kellaway said: "I always wanted to be able to play with as much power as he had.
"When Gene Lees asked me, 'What is it about Oscar that you love?' I said, the will to swing," added Kellaway - Sapa-AP