When pianist Oliver Jones returned to his home town of Montreal in 1980 after nearly 20 years, he had business cards printed offering his services at weddings as an “accompanist-arranger-pianist.” Said 51-year-old Jones: “I did it because a man’s got to eat, and I wasn’t sure some
old unknown like me could get by playing nothing but jazz.” But five years later Jones has laid such fears to rest by establishing a growing international reputation and drawing frequent comparisons with another jazz pianist—his childhood friend Oscar Peterson. Following a critically acclaimed performance at the recent Montreal International Jazz Festival, the release last month of his fourth album, Lights of Burgundy, and upcoming tours across Canada and the United States, Jones
now stands on the threshold of stardom for the first time in his career.
Despite such glowing prospects, Jones remains engagingly modest about his newfound celebrity. Indeed, he says he is awed by being on the same bill with singer Sarah Vaughan for an Aug. 19 concert at Ontario’s Stratford Festival. But jazz experts believe that Jones deserves such stature. After his performance at the Montreal festival, Leonard Feather, respected critic for the Los Angeles Times, said, “He is one of the best musicians I heard here.” When other critics compare the pianist with Peterson, Jones waves off the remarks, declaring, “There is only one Oscar, and he stands by himself.” But Peterson, who lives in Mississauga, Ont., says Jones is now “on the road to musical genius.”
Products of one of Canada’s most fertile jazz breeding grounds, Jones, Peterson and another eminent Montreal jazz pianist, Reg Wilson, grew up within three blocks of each other in the working class St-Henri district. Jones taught himself to play the piano at age 3 and gave his first concert two years later, highlighting his performance with a boogie-woogie version of In the Mood. At 9, he began taking formal piano lessons from Peterson’s older sister, Daisy, and was soon performing in local cafés. In 1963, after years of playing a succession of club dates, he took a job as accompanist for Jamaican pop singer Kenny Hamilton. After 17 years with Hamilton, playing mostly hotels in Puerto Rico, Jones returned home, partly at the urging of Montreal jazz musician Charles Biddle.
Critics marvel at Jones’s musical development at such a late stage in his career. Said John Norris, publisher of the Toronto-based international jazz magazine Coda: “He has become a smooth, polished professional who is, at most, two years away from playing the biggest events with the biggest names in jazz.” Seated behind his Yamaha grand piano on the second floor of his StHenri condominium, Jones now draws much of his musical inspiration from the view out his back window of the streets where he spent his childhood. Said Jones: “It is fun to be back where it began. But it is even nicer to know that I now have the freedom to go and play where I want.” Although Jones is arriving late in the spotlight, his success is every bit as sweet.
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