My Canada, 33/150: Jazz in the key of Oscar

No discussion of 20th-century jazz goes by without a mention of  Oscar Peterson.

Peterson became a master in an art form born at the turn of the 20th century in New Orleans. He himself was born in Montreal and lived all his life in Canada while being lauded internationally: eight Grammy awards, including one for lifetime achievement; more than 200 album collaborations with jazz giants such as Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong; the highest honours from his home country (Companion of the Order of Canada), France (Officer in the Order of Arts and Letters) and from the International Academy of Jazz Hall of Fame.

He was most famous for his extraordinary skills as a jazz pianist but he also brought a distinctly Canadian vision to jazz composition, most famously his Canadiana Suite, written in 1963.

These pieces paint a jazz landscape of Canada, from coast to coast, starting with “Ballad to the East (the Maritimes), “Laurentide Waltz” (Laurentian Mountains) and “Place St. Henri”,  the poor Montreal neighbourhood where Peterson was raised. Next is “Hogtown Blues” (Toronto), “Blues of the Prairies” (Manitoba), “Wheatland” (Saskatchewan), the upbeat and bouncy “March Past” (Calgary) and finally to the Pacific coast with “Land of the Misty Giants” (B.C.)

Peterson’s father had been an amateur organist and ensured his five children learned the keyboard. Each child was responsible for teaching what he or she knew to the next-youngest sibling: Oscar was taught primarily by his sister Daisy, who grew into a talented pianist in her own right but she found it difficult to perform in public. She moved to teaching and passed along the Peterson panache to a new generation of Montreal jazz pianists, including  Oliver Jones and Joe Sealy.

Joe Sealy, in particular, carries forward the Peterson torch, mixing performance jazz with compositions that brings jazz language to the experience of Canada. He’s best known for his 1997 Africville Suite that tells the story of Africville, a community established near Halifax by American slaves following the War of 1812. In the 1960s, the community was razed by municipal officials, who relocated residents rather than invest in fixing the broken or non-existent infrastructure for the town.

Peterson died 10 years ago, in 2007. He suffered from arthritis through much of his life but nevertheless kept up an astonishing volume of performances and recordings until his last years. He left the road for two years beginning in 1993 when he had a stroke that affected his left side but in 1995 he returned to performing, adjusting his technique to play mostly with his strong right hand.

I never saw the fully two-handed Peterson perform in person, but I did see him and his trio in concert at Stratford’s Festival Theatre.

In 1956, an earlier Peterson trio recorded the much-lauded album, “Oscar Peterson at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival.”

This concert, four decades later, was promoted as a sentimental return visit and my expectations were low, given what I’d read about Peterson’s impairment. Whoa. It was an astonishingly assured performance, the work of a true master of his craft. As Canadian politician and Peterson friend Bob Rae said at the time, “a one-handed Oscar was better than just about anyone with two hands.”

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