The Oscar Petersons

In this first of a new series of intimate interviews, a brilliant woman reporter calls on a renowned jazz pianist and his family — and discovers what life’s like in the home of a globe-trotting celebrity whose hours are upside-down

JUNE CALLWOOD October 25 1958

The Oscar Petersons

In this first of a new series of intimate interviews, a brilliant woman reporter calls on a renowned jazz pianist and his family — and discovers what life’s like in the home of a globe-trotting celebrity whose hours are upside-down

JUNE CALLWOOD October 25 1958

Oscar Peterson, rated by many the best jazz pianist alive, spends his working hours in the lemon-blues world of jazz music, bowing in his tuxedo and cummerbund to applause in Carnegie Hall or the Hollywood Bowl, watching cigarette smoke drift through thin spotlights on night-club bandstands in New York and Chicago, goading himself to perform brilliantly in the embalming environment of recording studios. He sleeps restlessly by day, rising in the full afternoon to eat breakfast, and rides airplanes between concert bookings in Europe or the Orient.

Few careers offer so many obstacles to the likelihood of a cohesive marriage and sound family life, but Peterson has both. He lives with his pretty wife and five merry-eyed children in a four-bedroom bungalow in suburban Toronto. His friends know him to be a loving and stern father, insisting on better behavior than most parents can exact from their children, a sensitive and positive husband whose eleven-year marriage is weatherproof, and a conscientious citizen. He once astounded Montreal police by reporting an unwitnessed minor collision with a parked car.

Peterson is celebrated, not always joyously, for his honesty. A musician who was a close friend of his once asked in smug anticipation, "Oscar, what do you think of my piano playing?” Replied Peterson promptly: "I’ll tell you, you’re not a pianist.”

Photographer Peter Croydon and I visited the Petersons recently to get some equally candid answers. Along with them we got some good conversation and a wealth of common sense. We arrived around one in the afternoon, as Oscar was sitting down to breakfast with the youngest and most gamin-like of his five children, five-year-old-Norman.

"He always waits to have breakfast with me whenever I'm home,” explained Oscar. Six-year-old Oscar Jr. approached shyly and his father turned to him. "You want some too?” The boy nodded quickly. "He’s already eaten,” protested Mrs. Peterson, coming from the kitchen with two plates of scrambled eggs. “I'll give him part of mine,” Oscar told her. The boys joined their father at the table and ate neatly, watching the adults with silent fascination.

Both Oscar and his wife, the former Lillie Fraser, are thirty-two years old. He is a huge man, over six foot one and weighing two hundred and forty; she is small, trim and quiet. When they are together, Oscar does the talking. Both credit this, a manifestation of the balance of their relationship, with the success of their marriage. After the boys had finished and had disappeared in the direction of their bedroom, the Petersons discussed marriage.

"There’s a saying that there are a lot of kings on the road but few kings at home,” explained Oscar. "Well, I'm a king at home.”

"We used to have arguments about this,” Lil added. "I used to say, ‘Look, I’m just as good as you are' and he’d say ‘No, you’re not—and if you don’t like it, there’s the door.’ ”

Their three daughters — Lynn, ten, Sharon, nine, and Gay, eight—were born so close together that Lil had, for a time, a sense of being trapped. In the lull before the birth of the boys, she suggested to her husband that she get a change from her household chores by taking a job.

"We don't need the money,” Oscar stated, feigning incomprehension.

“I know,” said Lil. “I just want to get out for a while, that’s all.”

“Your place is right here with those babies,” Oscar informed her stiffly. “Just forget any other notion you might have.”

For some years now Lil Peterson has been enthusiastically resigned to this role. “I don't know how those marriages where the husband is henpecked work out,” she commented wonderingly. “They’re unnatural; both the husband and wife feel terrible.”

"Another thing that causes a lot of trouble in marriages is that both aren't more honest with one another,” interposed her husband. “They have suspicions or problems and they don't get them out in the open. I had to take you to Europe to get you to really talk to me, tell me your grievances.”

Lil laughed at the recollection.

In return for what both regard as Lil's proper containment, Oscar is extraordinarily devoted. He awed fellow musicians one day at New York's ldlewild Airport, when the group was transferring from a transatlantic plane to one taking them to Chicago for an engagement the next night.

“I’ll meet you there,” Peterson announced. “I’m going home first.”

“You haven't got time to go to Chicago by way of Canada!”

“Yes, I have,” he retorted calmly. “I can get half a day with my family. It's worth it.”

“He does that all the time, even if he can only be home a few hours,” observed Lil gratefully. “If his tour is going to be a long one, he arranges for me to join him halfway through. And when he comes home, he's loaded with gifts. He brings unusual, unexpected things, like a carved teak chest from Hong Kong.”

The Petersons led the way downstairs to the basement recreation room where one wall is filled with records and the rest of the room bristles with the latest equipment for hi-fidelity and stereophonic listening, film projectors, tape recorders and an ebony grand piano someone in Denmark once gave him. Oscar arranged chairs for his guests and nodded in the direction of his piano.

“You like it? I was playing this date in Copenhagen. The piano they had provided was a beauty.” He interrupted himself to digress. “That's one thing I hate about being a pianist.

"Other musicians use the same instrument night after night but we have to take what we’re given, pianos of all shapes and sizes. In and out of tune.” He shook his head in disgust.

“Well, I was so intrigued with this piano I was telling you about that I went back to the bandstand after everyone had left.” While stagehands noisily dismantled the set, Peterson played ecstatically to himself. He looked up after a while and commented softly, "This is a wonderful piano.”

A stranger who had been watching stepped forward. "Eve got a warehouse full of pianos,” he told Oscar. “Come around tomorrow and see them.”

Oscar agreed. The next afternoon the man showed him a vast room of fine pianos and commanded simply. "Try them all. Take your time.” Oscar moved his big frame at a leisurely pace from piano to piano. In the end he said he liked a handsome Hornung & Moller best. The stranger waved his hand. “It's yours,” he beamed.

Peterson touched the piano with a tenderness some men give their lady loves. His heavy hand passed above the keys and a lacework of notes spilled down. "It must be worth three or four thousand dollars. The man paid the shipping charges from Denmark too. All he wanted from me was a picture of myself and a testimonial saying that I liked the piano.”

Lil Peterson observed that the Danish piano is far removed in quality from the one Oscar first knew. He was born in Montreal a few years ahead of the depression in a family severely afflicted with poverty. One of five children of Daniel Peterson, a railway porter, Oscar was a sickly child who spent a year in a sanitarium recovering from tuberculosis, and so did one of his sisters. They remember the period as a time of sanctuary from their father's harsh discipline.

“He decided as early as I can remember that I was going to be a musician,” Oscar recalled. “I was playing a cornet in the family orchestra when I was five and he made up his mind that I had talent. He went right out and bought a piano. I'll never know how. He must have gone without things to pay for it. From that time on, my sister and I practised — or else.”

“His father used to beat them with his belt,” explained Lil, smoothing her skirt. She had settled on a narrow bench along one wall of the room, in the attitude of a spectator. "His sister Daisy used to get it worse than Oscar. She told me about a time when their father was going out on the railroad and he assigned them both a very complicated concerto to learn. They knew they would have to play it without a mistake before he got back. Well, Daisy practised for three, four hours every day, just terrified. Oscar didn't touch the piano, lolled around and read comic books or something. The day before their dad was due home, he went over to the piano and played the whole thing through perfectly. His ear is fabulous.”

The Peterson children had no toys but played with what they could find around the house: boxes, clothes pegs, spoons. Only one child had a doll and although she is now an adult, she treasures it still. “We were poor too,” Lil added. “My dad was a porter on the railroad too, but we weren’t as poor as the Petersons.” Oscar remembers with burning vividness the shame he felt on his first day in high school, wearing patched pants.

"One thing about it, though,” Lil observed seriously. “Those kids really got a lot of love. They were very close as a family. Their mother used to try and protect them from their dad’s beatings. He loved them too, in his way. He just wanted a lot for them.”

“That’s a mistake I won't make with our children,” commented her husband, moving around the room absently in search of his cigarette lighter. “I have no ambitions for them at all. People sometimes ask me if I want them to be musicians. I say, 'If they want to, sure.’ They can be whatever they like; I won't push them. I've seen too much misery when that happens. Mercer Ellington, for example, trying to follow in his father’s footsteps. It winds up with weeping on both ends.”

As a reaction from his father’s brand of discipline, which descended like an avalanche before the culprit could stammer an explanation or denial, Oscar is meticulously fair with his children.

When he does spank them, after due enquiry, he suffers an agony of remorse. The Petersons tolerate no rudeness or show of disrespect for adults from their children. In his implacable insistence on honesty and courtesy, Oscar sometimes detects in himself a glint of his father’s steel. “I have to watch myself,” he confessed. “It turned out to be a good thing for me to be raised that way, but I don't want it for my kids.”

He also has more than a trace of his father's stubbornness. “I remember the first time I ever heard a jazz, piano," he mused, shifting his bulk in his chair. “I was about twelve and this sailor off a West Indies boat was playing. I listened and I decided I wanted to play music like that, only play it better.”

The boy returned home and grimly began to practise jazz, getting a feel for the cleverness of the idiom. He rested his instinct for the music on a heavy foundation of classical training. When he wasn’t in school, he practised from eight in the morning until noon, from the time he bolted his lunch until six, from after dinner until after midnight— for a year.

“When that sailor came back the next year, we had it out at the piano,” grinned Oscar.

“How did you do?” He was asked.

His grin widened. “I made out all right.”

As a youth he won a radio amateur contest and his father used the prize money, $250, to buy a newer piano. Eventually Oscar found work in dance orchestras around Montreal. His father used to clock him, allowing no more than forty minutes from the moment the final Good Night Ladies was due to be played until Oscar was expected at his front door. The pianist didn’t dare be late.

“Lil and I started going around together when we were both sixteen, isn’t that right Lil? We got married when we were twenty-one. Then my wild period started.”

Oscar’s leap into wild oats was on a scale appropriate to his size. He stayed up until dawn playing jazz with any musician with sufficient staying power, drank his share, was impatient and irritated at his wife’s complaints. He had no intention of trading one taskmaster for another.

“Then one day I went to see our minister," Oscar related with an appreciation for the drama of the story. “And he straightened me right out.”

“What did he say?”

“Nothing, that was the beauty of it.” The minister, Rev. Charles E. Combes, must have been startled to find Peterson on his doorstep early one morning, giving strong indication that he had not yet been to bed. He invited him in, urged him to have a cup of tea and asked the purpose of the visit.

“I told him everything I was doing, all the crazy terrible things. I left nothing out, nothing. I was going a way I didn’t want to go and I didn't know what to do about it. When I stopped talking, after a long time, Rev. Combes said politely, is that all?’ ‘Why, yes,’ I said. I don’t have to worry about you,’ he told me. ‘You know the difference between right and wrong.’ That was all he said to me. I just stared at him. After that, I had to live up to his faith in me.”

Lil grinned at him. “Remember how you used to get sick every time I did, all the time I was pregnant?”

Oscar laughed. “I really did. She used to get sick at odd times, not just in the morning. Once I was walking down the street and I suddenly was violently ill, right there on the sidewalk. Later I discovered Lil was ill at the same time.”

Oscar Peterson’s big break as a musician would have broken a lesser man— he made his United States debut in Carnegie Hall, at a jazz concert that starred people like Ella Fitzgerald, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins. The jazz impresario Norman Granz arranged it after asking if Oscar was game.

“Go ahead,” Peterson told him. “After a break like that, I’ll never be able to whine that I didn’t get a chance.”

Who's the greatest?

One September night Granz introduced the unknown Canadian to a sold out audience, mystifying them because Peterson’s name wasn’t even on the program. “Play whatever you like, for as long as you like,” Granz told him. Peterson started with I Only Have Eyes for You and went on, amid applause and cheers. Since then he has made thirty to forty record albums and has won world acclaim.

“The best thing that ever happened to me,” Oscar reflected, unconsciously staring at his hands, “was when I heard that Art Tatum had named me as his favorite pianist. He played the greatest piano in the world, that’s all. Vladimir Horowitz is maybe second. And Tatum said that about me. That’s the best tribute I’ll ever get.”

Frank Sinatra is also a Peterson fan. Once Peterson and his trio were appearing at a Las Vegas hotel at a time when Sinatra was singing just down the street. On the final night of his booking, Sinatra ended his act early. “I don’t know what you people plan to do now,” he told his audience, “but I’m going to hear Oscar. It’s his last night and I don’t want to miss him.”

Oscar chuckled as he remembered the occasion. “Frank came to see me all right,” he smiled, “and he brought half of Las Vegas with him.”

In the pause that developed, Lil murmured idly, “Remember that first tour, the Jazz at the Philharmonic tour?” “Yeah,” Peterson recalled. “Granz knew that as a Canadian I wouldn’t have any idea about how a Negro is treated in the south. He offered to let me skip those dates, but I said I’d go.” “You phoned me and said you were starving,” Lil inserted, moving an ashtray nearer her husband. "Your voice sounded just sick. All you were eating was hamburgs. You couldn't go into restaurants; either the white musicians would bring you out food to eat in the car or else you could stand at the back of the restaurant and they’d pass it out the kitchen door.”

"I couldn’t eat that way,” Peterson explained. "Traveling in the south, it feels like you're not just in another world, you're on some other planet.”

“Once you had to play with a tire chain at your feet, to protect yourself in case anyone in the audience came over the footlights to attack you,” added Lil.

"Yes, but I’ve known discrimination in Canada too.”

“Hamilton,” said Lil tersely. Oscar nodded. A few years ago a Hamilton barber refused to cut Peterson's hair. Oscar argued for a time, then went to the nearest newspaper office and the subsequent publicity brought a score of phone calls to the Peterson home from barbers who denounced the bigot and offered to cut Peterson’s hair any time.

"Oscar has a reputation for being so nice all the time that people suspect he is two-faced,” Lil smiled. "I’ve heard them say, ‘Don’t trust Oscar, he's just too nice!’ They don’t know him. He doesn’t often lose his temper but when he does, he really blows.”

Discrimination triggers his temper occasionally. The earliest example of it was when Oscar was about nine or ten, in a classroom with another colored boy. The teacher, in trying to find out which student had thrown a ruler, snapped, "I'll bet one of the niggers did it.” Oscar leaped to his feet. “You apologize for that!” he screamed. His indignation led him to the principal’s office; the teacher subsequently left the school.

The Petersons believe that there is a general bettering of tolerance, despite recent ugly disturbances. As proof, their children haven’t felt any discrimination. Although their district in Toronto has few Negro residents, several neighbors hurried to welcome them during their first week there.

A few years ago, Lil overheard, with sick dismay, a group of children taunting her daughters with the epithet "Niggers!” While she stood undecided, her girls whirled and screeched "Snowballs!” The matter, Lil noted, seemed to be permanently closed.

Another source of annoyance to Oscar is the theory he sometimes encounters that it isn't the least surprising that a Negro should be a good jazz musician. "They explain to me that it is a black man’s music, so naturally I can play it. That’s nonsense. I'm a Canadian. I learned jazz in a country whose atmosphere is slightly sterile for a jazz musician. It has nothing to do with color. I know a lot of tone-deaf Negroes."

While the Petersons talked, the five children were playing somewhere in the house so quietly they couldn't be heard. The oldest. Lynn, appeared at her father's command to search for his lighter. She went out', came back a few minutes later holding it. He thanked her politely, she said, "You’re welcome, Daddy,” and went out again silently.

"I don't hear the television going,” the photographer commented suddenly. "Don't they watch it?”

"We have rules,” Oscar explained, his face becoming more stern. "In the summer, they can watch it all day if they want to. When school starts, it's rationed to one hour a day on schooldays and two hours a day on weekends.”

"Are they good students?”

Both Petersons considered this and nodded together. “I encourage them,” remarked Oscar, "but I never praise. They aren't doing me a favor by getting good marks, or themselves either.

It’s just expected of them, just normal procedure.”

“Do you spank them?”

"Sure,” replied Oscar. “Ask Lil about discipline. She carries the heaviest load because I’m away so much.”

“We spank them, or put them in their rooms, or take their toys away,” supplied Lil. "Whatever seems called for. I have to watch myself that I don't get so cranky when Oscar is away on a long tour that I’m taking it out on the children. I get terribly lonely. The nights are the worst. I sit and knit. Listen to records, feel miserably blue."

The expression on Oscar’s face was gentle. “It’s been very hard on Lil, the life I lead. I'm planning to cut down on night-club dates in the future so I can be home more.”

“I hear you don’t allow rock-’n’-roll music in your house.”

Oscar looked surprised. “It just happens that way, doesn’t it Lil? The girls have radios but they never turn them on. They like classical music and jazz, sometimes some of my records, or Don Shirley or Anita O’Day. They are all taking music lessons and I think that accounts for it. Once you learn something about music you don’t fall victim to subterranean rock 'n' roll.”

The discussion led from rock ’n’ roll to jazz, and jazz musicians. There was a comment on the high proportion of dope addicts among jazz musicians and Peterson’s voice went down in tone and up in volume.

“That’s another of those generalizations that annoys me,” he says irritably. “I know a doctor who became an addict. They put him in a private institution; no one even heard about it. But if I took a shot of heroin, police sirens would clang, headlines all over the place. I’d be branded for life. Very few musicians are addicts, but the whole profession suffers.”

Peterson’s dislike of dope in all its forms is pronounced and forthright. Recently he was a guest at a home where the host lit a marijuana cigarette. "What’s the matter, Oz?” he was asked. “You can’t come in my home again,” said Peterson frankly. The argument that ensued lasted for hours.

“I noticed a good friend getting the habit while we were on tour a few years ago,” Peterson recalls. “After a while, he mentioned to me he was worried his wife would find out. I told him, ‘How could she miss? It’s written all over you, you’re a junkie. You’re also a weakling.’ He quit the habit.”

“Are you ever nervous?”

“Never about myself. I have faith in myself. I know I can play. I believe that talent is a manifestation of ego. Sometimes with a musician it may be the only ego he has and he’s terrified when he’s doing anything else but playing. The only thing that bothers me, sometimes a musician I don’t like will come in to hear me and suddenly I play marvellously, way over my head. It makes me wonder what kind of a phoney I’ve been, playing at the other level most of the night. When I'm playing really well, like on that record we made at Stratford, I'm playing better than I can.” “Are you improved now as a musician over a few years ago?”

Oscar and Lil exchanged an affectionate look. “I think so. I’ve stopped trying to prove a point demonstrating technical ability all the time.” He paused and thought through what he was about to say.

“You enter the scene,” he resumed carefully, "and you're battling greats. You have to find a wedge to get that door open. So you look over your assets and pick the strongest one to use to bludgeon the doorkeeper.”

He hesitated, hoping not to be misunderstood. "I've got my membership now, I’m inside. I can say something with one note, if I want to.”