Peterson was born to immigrants from the West Indies; his father worked as a porter for Canadian Pacific Railway. Peterson grew up in the neighbourhood of Little Burgundy in Montreal, Quebec. It was in this predominantly black neighbourhood that he found himself surrounded by the jazz culture that flourished in the early 20th century. At the age of five, Peterson began honing his skills with the trumpet and piano. However, a bout of tuberculosis at age seven prevented him from playing the trumpet again, and so he directed all his attention to the piano. His father, Daniel Peterson, an amateur trumpeter and pianist, was one of his first music teachers, and his sister Daisy taught young Oscar classical piano. Young Oscar was persistent at practising scales and classical etudes daily, and thanks to such arduous practice he developed his astonishing virtuosity.
As a child, Peterson also studied with Hungarian-born pianist Paul de Marky, a student of Istvan Thomán who was himself a pupil of Franz Liszt, so his training was predominantly based on classical piano. Meanwhile he was captivated by traditional jazz and learned several ragtime pieces and especially the boogie-woogie. At that time Peterson was called "the Brown Bomber of the Boogie-Woogie.
At age nine Peterson played piano with control that impressed professional musicians. For many years his piano studies included four to six hours of practice daily. Only in his later years did he decrease his daily practice to just one or two hours.
In 1940, at age fourteen, Peterson won the national music competition organized by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. After that victory, he dropped out of school and became a professional pianist working for a weekly radio show, and playing at hotels and music halls.
Peterson resided in a two-storey house on Hammond Road in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, until his death in 2007 of kidney failure.
Some of the artists who influenced Peterson's musicianship during the early years were Teddy Wilson, Nat "King" Cole, James P. Johnson and Art Tatum, to whom many have tried to compare Peterson in later years. One of his first exposures to Tatum's musical talents came early in his teen years when his father played Art Tatum's Tiger Rag for him, and Peterson was so intimidated by what he heard that he became disillusioned about his own playing, to the extent of refusing to play the piano at all for several weeks. In his own words, "Tatum scared me to death" and Peterson was "never cocky again" about his mastery at the piano. Tatum was a model for Peterson's musicianship during the 1940s and 1950s. Tatum and Peterson eventually became good friends, although Peterson was always shy about being compared with Tatum and rarely played the piano in Tatum's presence.
Peterson has also credited his sister Daisy Sweeney — a noted piano teacher in Montreal who also taught several other noted Canadian jazz musicians — with being an important teacher and influence on his career. Under his sister's tutelage, Peterson expanded into classical piano training and broadened his range while mastering the core classical pianism from scales to preludes and fugues by Johann Sebastian Bach.
Building on Art Tatum's pianism and aesthetics, Peterson also absorbed Tatum's musical influences, notably from piano concertos by Sergei Rachmaninoff. Rachmaninoff's harmonizations, as well as direct quotations from his 2nd Piano Concerto, are thrown in here and there in many recordings by Peterson, including his work with the most familiar formulation of the Oscar Peterson Trio, with bassist Ray Brown and guitarist Herb Ellis. During the 1960s and 1970s Peterson made numerous trio recordings highlighting his piano performances that reveal more of his eclectic style that absorbed influences from various genres of jazz, popular and classical music.
From the late 1950s, when Peterson gained worldwide recognition as one of the leading pianists in jazz, he played in a variety of settings: solo, duo, trio, quartet, small bands, and big bands. However, his solo piano recitals, as well as his solo piano recordings were rare, until he chose to make a series of solo albums titled "Exclusively for my friends." These solo piano sessions, made for the Musik Produktion Schwarzwald (MPS) label, were Peterson's response to the emergence of such stars as Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner.
Some cognoscenti assert that Peterson's best recordings were made for MPS in the late 1960s and early 1970s. For some years subsequently he recorded for Granz's Pablo Records after the label was founded in 1973. In the 1990s and 2000s he recorded several albums accompanied by a combo for Telarc.
In the 1980s he played successfully in a duo with pianist Herbie Hancock. In the late 1980s and 1990s, after the stroke, Peterson made performances and recordings with his protégé Benny Green.
Peterson wrote pieces for piano, for trio, for quartet and for big band. He also wrote several songs, and made recordings as a singer. Probably his best-known compositions are "Canadiana Suite" and "Hymn to Freedom," the latter composed in the 1960s and inspired by the U.S. civil rights movement.
Peterson taught piano and improvisation in Canada, mainly in Toronto. With associates, he started and headed the Advanced School of Contemporary Music in Toronto for five years during the 1960s, but it closed because concert touring called him and his associates away, and it did not have government funding. Later, he mentored the York University jazz program and was the Chancellor of the entire university for several years in the early 1990s. He also published his original jazz piano etudes for practice. However, he asked his students to study the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, especially the Well Tempered Clavier, the Goldberg Variations, and The Art of Fugue, considering these piano pieces essential for every serious pianist. Pianists Benny Green and Oliver Jones were among his students.
Peterson had arthritis since his youth, and in later years could hardly button his shirt. Never slender, his weight increased to 125 kg (280 lb), hindering his mobility. He had hip replacement surgery in the early 1990s. Although the surgery was successful, his mobility was still inhibited. Somewhat later, in 1993, Peterson suffered a serious stroke that weakened his left side and sidelined him for two years. Also in 1993 incoming Prime Minister and longtime Peterson fan and friend Jean Chrétien offered Peterson the position of Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario, but according to Chrétien he declined, citing the health problems from his recent stroke.
After the stroke, Peterson recuperated for about two years. He gradually regained mobility and some control of his left hand. However, his virtuosity was never restored to the original level, and his playing after his stroke relied principally on his right hand. In 1995 he returned to public performances on a limited basis, and also made several live and studio recordings for Telarc. In 1997 he received a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement and an International Jazz Hall of Fame Award, another indication that Peterson continued to be regarded as one of the greatest jazz musicians ever to play. Canadian politician, friend, and amateur pianist Bob Rae contends that "a one-handed Oscar was better than just about anyone with two hands".
In 2003, Peterson recorded the DVD A Night in Vienna for Verve, with Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen (NHØP), Ulf Wakenius and Martin Drew. He continued to tour the U.S. and Europe, though maximally one month a year, with a couple of days' rest between concerts to recover his strength. His accompanists consisted of Ulf Wakenius (guitar), NHØP or David Young (bass), and Alvin Queen (drums), all leaders of their own groups.
Peterson's health declined rapidly in 2007. He had to cancel his performance at the 2007 Toronto Jazz Festival and his attendance at a June 8, 2007 Carnegie Hall all-star performance in his honour, owing to illness. On December 23, 2007, Peterson died of kidney failure at his home in Mississauga, Ontario. He left seven children, his fourth wife Kelly, and their daughter, Celine (born 1991).
Oscar Peterson (Montreal, 15 de agosto de 1925 - Mississauga, 23 de diciembre de 2007) fue un pianista canadiense de jazz.
Su estilo, formado durante los años cuarenta como en el caso de otros pianistas como Erroll Garner y George Shearing, oscila entre el swing y el bop, y se engloba dentro de la tendencia clasicista o tradicional del jazz. Seguidor de Art Tatum, se trata de un pianista acústico de gran técnica, con una destacable capacidad para tocar con velocidad y con una gran habilidad para el swing, independientemente del tempo de ejecución. Son elogiadas tanto sus interpretaciones en grupos pequeños como acompañando a cantantes, aunque sus mejores momentos sean como solista.
Aunque subestimado, Peterson es también compositor: por ejemplo, escribió y grabó la afamada "Canadian Suite" en 1964. Varias de sus propias obras las ha grabado con piano eléctrico. Excepcionalmente vocalista, su voz recuerda mucho a la de Nat King Cole.
Peterson ha sido criticado a lo largo de toda su carrera por lo que algunos entienden como una exuberancia innecesaria, tanto por lo que se refiere a la profusión de notas en sus interpretaciones como a la gran cantidad de discos grabados.
Aunque su padre era ferroviario, no le quitaba tiempo para su afición a la música, motivando al pequeño Oscar para volcarse a ella. De esta manera empezó a recibir lecciones de piano clásico a los seis años y aprendió con gran rapidez. Tras ganar un concurso para jóvenes talentos a los 14 años, empezó a trabajar en un espectáculo semanal de la radio de Montreal. Peterson tuvo sus primeras experiencias musicales serias tocando con la orquesta de Johnny Holmes. De 1945 a 1949, grabó 32 temas para Victor en Montreal. Se trata de interpretaciones en trío que muestran a un Peterson cómodo con el boogie-woogie, del que se apartaría pronto, y con el estilo próximo al swing de Teddy Wilson y Nat King Cole. Aun joven, su técnica era ya muy admirada por los aficionados y críticos.
El productor Norman Granz descubrió a Peterson en 1949 y pronto lo promocionó como una de las más relevante jóvenes promesas de su conjunto de músicos para espectáculos de jam session "Jazz at the Philarmonic" con el cual debuta a fines de ese año. Peterson grabó en 1950 una serie de dúos teniendo como compañeros en el contrabajo a Ray Brown y a Major Holley. Su version de "Tenderly" se convirtió en un éxito. Su fama se acrecentó en 1952 cuando formó un trío con el guitarrista Barney Kessel y con Brown. Kessel fue reemplazado más adelante por Herb Ellis. Este trío fue uno de los grupos de jazz más importantes entre 1953 y 1958. En 1958, cuando Ellis abandonó el grupo, se decidió prescindir de la guitarra y se unió un batería, Ed Thigpen. El trío Peterson-Brown-Thigpen (que estuvo trabajando hasta 1964), a diferencia del anterior, propició un mayor protagonismo del piano de Peterson. Otras versiones del trío contaron con baterías como Louis Hayes (1965-66), Bobby Durham (1967-70), Ray Price (1970) y con bajos como Sam Jones (1966-70) y George Mraz (1970).
En 1960, Oscar Peterson creó la Advanced School of Contemporary Music en Toronto. Peterson grabó su primer disco en solitario en 1968. Durante su estancia en el sello de Granz, trabajó con el guitarrista Joe Pass y el bajo Niels Pedersen. Apareció en docenas de grabaciones con otras estrellas, hizo cinco discos en dúo con importantes trompetistas (Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge, Harry "Sweets" Edison, Clark Terry y Jon Faddis), y tocó con Count Basie en duelos pianísticos.
Un grave accidente cardiovascular en 1993 lo dejó fuera de combate durante dos años. Desde entonces, regresó gradualmente a escena, aunque su mano izquierda había quedado afectada.
Murió el 23 de diciembre de 2007, con 82 años en su casa de Mississauga en Ontario (Canadá).