Born and raised in Montreal, Canada in 1925, the classically trained Peterson was already a professional musician in his teens, swinging with the Johnny Holmes Orchestra. He later formed his own jazz trio, performing at the Alberta Lounge, which would often broadcast its concerts live on radio. When Peterson was just 24, one of these broadcasts was heard by legendary jazz impresario Norman Granz, in a taxi on his way to the airport. Granz knew he had to hear Peterson play in person, and asked to be driven to the club instead; where he invited Peterson to be a surprise guest at a Jazz at the Philharmonic concert at Carnegie Hall. Peterson was soon on his way to perform in the US for the first time, in duet with bassist Ray Brown – a performance that marked the inception of an extended friendship and musical partnership that lasted over five decades.
“People think of Oscar as an incredible virtuoso, but don’t really know what a prolific composer he was,” notes his widow and archivist Kelly Peterson, reminding us of the breadth of his creative legacy. “I want to share how much music he wrote, and how important that is,” she reflects. While maintaining a grueling tour schedule of over 300 days a year, Peterson produced a substantial body of work, including the GRAMMY-nominated “Canadiana Suite,” the three-part “A Salute to Bach”, a jazz ballet titled “City Lights,” the “Africa” suite, and various film projects.
Many of Peterson’s compositions were unreleased. In her effort to get more of his music out into the world, Ms. Peterson became “shepherd of his legacy.” In 2015 she rallied an all-star cast of jazz pianists, including Kenny Barron, Gerald Clayton, Chick Corea, and fellow Montrealer Oliver Jones, to record “Oscar, With Love” – a collection of Peterson’s original compositions, some of which had not been previously recorded, as well as music written as tributes to him. “I had 15 pianists and Oscar’s bassist, Dave Young, come to our home, to record Oscar’s compositions on Oscar’s own [Bösendorfer Imperial] piano. That was incredible!” recalls Ms. Peterson, who invited Swiss engineer Blaise Favre to collaborate on the self-produced recording. “I felt this project was just like a resurrection or a renaissance of a glorious hero,” reflects Favre, who continues working with Ms. Peterson on remixing and mastering previously unreleased recordings.
“My goal is really to fill in gaps; to bring recordings of groups that people haven’t heard – trios, duo recordings, and solo recordings of Oscar, because there aren’t many commercially available recordings of Oscar playing solo, and that was a really significant part of his career, starting in the 70s,” she explains. “So I’m looking to gather more of those recordings, working on them, and releasing them.”
Finding the archival work both exciting and challenging, she is inspired by the discovery of live recordings that have not yet been issued. “With a career that spanned nearly 70 years, there are many recordings with certain groups, but not very many with others. For instance, the recording we released last year, “On a Clear Day” [recorded in Zurich in 1971] is only the second one available of his trio with [drummer] Louis Hayes and [bassist] Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen. . . That trio was only together for six months, and it’s wonderful to hear them together – Lewis at the end of his tenure, and Niels at the beginning of his.”
This year’s release is one she is also excited about: a trio with Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen, which many refer to as their favorite, “classic” Peterson trio. “It was pure joy to find a concert recording that had not yet been issued,” says Ms. Peterson in our interview, positively beaming. “It’s a very old recording, from 1964; but I’m thrilled with how good it sounds,” she says. “There is continuous work to be done to manage Oscar’s legacy, to promote it, and also to preserve and protect it. Because I feel it’s very precious. I do not take lightly that Oscar trusted me to do this; it’s a tremendous honour.”
Oscar Peterson’s centennial celebration is coming up in 2025. Look out for special projects and concerts, a new website, and a special, limited edition box set, contents still under wraps.
Sharonne Cohen is a Montreal-based writer and editor. Passionate about arts, culture and the creative imagination, she has been a music journalist since 2001, contributing to publications including DownBeat, JazzTimes, Okayplayer, VICE/Noisey, Afropop Worldwide, The Revivalist, and La Scena Musicale. Her photographs often accompany her writing.
Header image: Oscar Peterson in concert, circa 1955. Photo: Archive Photos/Getty.