If Oscar Peterson isn’t the greatest living jazz pianist, somebody’s fooling his banker

Jack Batten April 17 1965

If Oscar Peterson isn’t the greatest living jazz pianist, somebody’s fooling his banker

Jack Batten April 17 1965

If Oscar Peterson isn’t the greatest living jazz pianist, somebody’s fooling his banker

Jack Batten

THE PIANO THAT OSCAR PETERSON, the Canadian jazz musician, played during his concert at Massey Hall in Toronto late last January was his own — a sleek, black, seventy-five-hundred-dollar Steinway grand that, on the platform stage, suggested nothing so much as a finely tooled racing car. The piano resides for most of the year in an upholstered warehouse stall and is rolled out only infrequently for public appearances. Its attendant, Peterson’s personal piano tuner, was along, too, watching from the wings at Massey Hall, a man with an infallible ear and a hovering concern for Steinways.

The concert was by way of being a special occasion for Peterson and he was anxious that everybody, including himself and the grand, perform at a level close to their peak. The concert was, for one thing, his first appearance, after a rare New Year’s layoff, in a series that will take him this season back and forth across North America half a dozen times and once around Europe, and bring him fees of close to one hundred thousand dollars. It was also his first concert appearance in two years before an audience in Toronto, where he has lived since 1954 when he moved from Montreal, his birthplace. Peterson is one of the few Canadian artists who have reached international success on a grand scale and have retained Canada as their home base, and proudly, he still enjoys huge satisfaction in impressing other Canadians.

Peterson was introduced to the Massey Hall audience with a lavish encomium by a local disc jockey, and the crowd — the house had been sold out two days earlier — hailed him long and vigorously as he walked onstage, a huge coffee-colored man of bearish contour,

resplendent in a modish jet tuxedo and laceless patent-leather shoes. His hands and wrists dazzled with gold — gold cufflinks, gold wristwatch band, gold identification bracelet, and a large beveled gold wedding band on his left hand.

His opening selection — played, as Peterson’s music customarily is, to the rhythm accompaniment of his bassist, Ray Brown, and his drummer, Ed Thigpen — instantly revealed that his celebrated style was intact. He began the number, typically, with a long, rhapsodic, out-of-tempo introduction; then, in an electrifying transition, he launched, in tempo, a series of improvisations that alternated passages of immense, full-blooded chords with seemingly endless lines of dazzlingly articulated single-note patterns, all of these taken at a rhythmic clip that never dropped below a steady lope. The number set the pace for the evening: the three musicians propelled their jazz with a sweeping momentum that never waned, and even the program’s ballads, though they began gently and sensitively, gradually increased in intensity until they, too, rocked like down-home revival hymns.

The effect of the music on Peterson’s followers was galvanizing. By the third number, a stomping blues tune, most of the audience was tapping, swaying and in such restless motion that it seemed as if the floor beneath them must suddenly have grown unbearably hot. Peterson, for his part, rocked easily back and forth on his bench, occasionally cocking his head to his left to catch some subtlety of Ray Brown’s bass, more rarely surveying the audience, apparently absentmindedly, as if he felt a duty to acknowledge that he wasn’t after all, playing alone, for his private / continued on page 24

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pleasure. Between number s, he mopped his face with a Brobdingnagian handkerchief and with the other men executed I o w, self-conscious bows in return for his fans’ acclaim. His final selection, after more than an

hour's music, took him out with a great rushing Ride Of The Valkyries denouement, and, in the best showbusiness tradition, it left the audience still cheering when the lights came on.

Backstage, Peterson pronounced himself satisfied with the evening.

PETERSON’S SUCCESS in drawing large

audiences and filling them with fervor and excitement — and the affluence that has resulted—set him uniquely apart from all but a handful of other jazz musicians. The world of jazz, contrary to popular, “square-’ belief, is not one of happy feet and jolly musicians. It is, rather, a world that is narrow, cramped and that teeters

forever on the brink of squalor. There are, to begin with, far more jazz musicians than there is audience for; in New York City, the world’s capital of jazz, perhaps three musicians in a hundred hold down regular jobs. The rest scramble for odd one-nighters (“gigs”), work in the post office, live on peanut butter and candy, drink, practise their horns and turn bitter.

Those who do work play in nightclubs that, more often than not, are fronts for gangsters whose concern for an aesthetic atmosphere is minimal. In clubs and out, jazz musicians are common targets for fast-shuffling booking agents and recording executives, narcotics peddlers, B-girls, heavy-fisted policemen and out-oftown conventioneers. If the musicians are Negroes, they contend with various stealthy manifestations of Jim Crow, and if they’re white, then they encounter Crow Jim, a device by which some colored musicians attempt to protect their stake in “their music.” Jazz musicians live in a world, in short, in which they waste their energies on noncreative activities.

The musicians who make a financial or artistic success, must, for the most part, suffer for their success—in the jazzman’s phrase, they “pay their dues.” Charles Parker, the undisputed genius of modern jazz, died ten years ago at thirty-four, a pauper, with the wasted body of a man twice his age. Miles Davis, a trumpeter with a matchless style, a devoted following and a Manhattan townhouse, had first to endure ten years of neglect and a debilitating narcotics habit.

Against this background, then, Oscar Peterson’s career has been uniquely blessed, and, in many ways, he is a curiosity in this world of jazz. For him, at any rate, applauding audiences such as the one in Massey Hall have always been there, and the affluence—though his childhood was marked by fairly difficult poverty— came quickly. And if he’s paid any dues — he drinks moderately, smokes a pipe, stays away from junkies—he’s paid them in his family relationships. His present wife is his second; his first, Peterson's childhood sweetheart, has custody of their five children. Peterson, sadly, is a visiting-day lather.

Even his entry into jazz occurred with astonishing ease — occurred, in fact, in the manner of a success story that hasn't been matched outside of the Hollywood movie of the late 1930s in which James Cagney, in one scene a mere paperboy who practised the violin nights, achieved sudden eminence one reel later as, yes, a symphonic conductor. Peterson, in the same style, emerged out of the audience onto the stage at Carnegie Hall on the night of September 18, 1949, to win rave reviews in Down Beat magazine and an international audience that has never deserted him.

Of course, there was preparation behind that great event. Back home in Montreal. Peterson had been playing the piano for fifteen years, since he was seven years old, and playing jazz for ten of those fifteen years. His music had brought him, in Canada, two radio programs of his own, a

recording contract and modest fame. He had indeed devoted himself singlemindedly to the business of constructing a career in jazz. There was only one faltering moment, when he briefly abandoned the piano to become a riveter. “1 seemed to have done everything I could do," he says now. He was eighteen at the time.

His local celebrity inevitably spread to the United States, and in the late 1940s American musicians visiting Montreal made a point of testing Peterson's talent. He passed easily: he uas judged good enough to attract offers to move into the hig time, from the likes of Jimmy Lunceford and Count Basie. But Peterson turned them all down, on the modest grounds that he didn't consider himself ready, until he accepted a proposal from Norman Granz, an impresario who is. in jazz, of the stature of Sol Hurok.

Granz planted Peterson in the Carnegie Hall audience and called him onstage, in the company of some of the great jazz names of the day, as a “surprise” guest. In the issue of Down Beat that followed the concert, its critic, ignoring the great jazz names, announced that “a young Canadian pianist stopped the Norman Granz Jazz at the Philharmonic concert dead cold in its tracks.” In retrospect. Peterson’s future was sealed from that event: he had begun a career that was to carry him in a straight line — with no sidetracks, no post-office jobs, no odd gigs, poor food or bitterness — past that other, bigger, sordid world of jazz.

The trio that Peterson formed in 1951. with Granz as his mentor and sponsor, and began leading on annual tours of the world's jazz centres, has become not merely a vehicle for making music, hut also the basis of a formidable corporate empire. Peterson is the principal of one company. Regal Recordings Limited, into which he pours the earnings from the trio's concert appearances (up to twentyfive hundred dollars per night), nightclub dates (up to forty-five hundred per week), and record royalties (a fluctuating percentage of album sales, which are usually guaranteed to reach fifteen thousand per album), and from which he pays the trio's expenses, including the salaries for Brown and Thigpen. Peterson also presides over Torni Music Limited, a firm which publishes his compositions and collects performing royalties on them.

Brown has liis company, Ray Brown Music Limited, which markets bass strings, cases, stands. Brown's compositions (which include Gravy Waltz, a recent Top Forty tune), a book he wrote on bass playing, and a book that tells beginners how to play jazz piano, written by Peterson. And Thigpen presides over a fourth company, Fd Thigpen Productions Limited. which offers as its chief production a how-to book about drumming by its president.

To judge from the steady sales of all these products, there is a ready market for them among the hundreds of thousands of jazz fans who have made Peterson's popularity, and that of his trio's, unquestioned among them from the start. Since 1951, in the annual Down Beat readers' poll, the Academy Awards of jazz. Peterson has placed first in the piano category

eleven times; second, three times; and third, once. He has won similar polls in Playboy, Metronome, Le Jazz Hot, and a jazz magazine in Japan.

Still, with all the evidence of acclaim and prosperity, Peterson is not entirely accepted. And it is precisely in the world of jazz he has largely bypassed that rejection of his music is centred. His jazz, in fact, is scorned by a great number of the young musicians, who make their music, the hard way, in New York City. And he has been savaged, perhaps more brutally than any other top musician, by the New York critics.

“Oscar makes me sick,” Miles Davis says. “He even had to learn to play the blues.”

“Peterson’s playing continues to be a pudding made from the leavings of Art Tatum, Nat Cole and Teddy Wilson,” Whitney Balliett, the New Yorker’s jazz critic, recently wrote. “That

he stirs it so vigorously fools most of the people most of the time.”

The trouble with Peterson’s music, in these men’s view, appears to be that it is jazz without meaning. When Peterson defines jazz as something that “represents an honest, sincere projection of happy, improvised music,” he is anathema to the musicians who consider jazz to be an art as serious as any art. To them, Peterson’s jazz, for all its rattling intensity, produces only a dull, settled, bourgeois response; it is much like the music of that other Canadian popular artist, Gisèle Mackenzie : pleasant,

but no one would ever mistake it for a deep emotional experience.

“Most of us have been bored by the monotony of Peterson’s mechanical posturings,” one critic wrote in Jazz Review, “but it is hard to convey their meaninglessness in words.”

All of this puts Peterson in the posi-

tion of a man who cries all the way to the bank. He faintly resents his critics and he makes no secret of his admiration for the jazz pianists of the 1930s, Tatum and Wilson, whom he regards as superior artisans to the current group of avant garde players. Understandably, too, he prefers to accept the opinion of Leonard Feather, probably the most widely read jazz critic in North America, who sums up Peterson’s career simply and positively: “Oscar Peterson is the greatest living jazz pianist.” But that problem isn’t really concerning Peterson these days anyway. He is too busy planning the new house he’s building this summer in Kleinberg, a select Toronto exurb. The house was designed by a chic architect named Ray Moriyama and it’ll have, Peterson plans, one room big enough and regal enough to house that sleek, black, seventy-fivehundred-dollar Steinway grand. ★