Jazz Virtuoso Dazzled on Piano

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Oscar Peterson, 82, a jazz piano virtuoso who accompanied musicians as diverse as Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker during a six-decade career and became one of the most-recorded and honored jazz pianists of all time, has died.

He died Dec. 23 at his home in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, a family friend told the Associated Press. The cause of death was kidney failure, said Mississauga's mayor, Hazel McCallion.

Peterson, a Canadian-born musical prodigy, recorded more than 200 albums and won eight Grammy Awards, including one for lifetime achievement in 1997.

Peterson showed technical and emotional brilliance across the jazz spectrum, from bop to blues, and his chief piano influences were astonishingly different -- Art Tatum, a master of jaw-droppingly-fast swing, as well as Nat King Cole, the legendarily tender balladeer.

A critical appraisal of Peterson's work conveyed how deep his talents ran. Jazz reviewer Leonard Feather once wrote that Peterson "can extract the gentlest whimper, the profoundest roar or the deepest indigo wails from his keyboard." Dan Morgenstern, director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, said yesterday, "Any pianist who came after Oscar Peterson would have had to look up to him as a model of all-around musicianship."

Peterson excelled in the trio format and had long musical relationships with bassist Ray Brown, guitarist Herb Ellis and drummer Ed Thigpen. As a soloist, he was sometimes criticized for following too closely in the "rococo" tradition of Tatum, who died in 1956. Peterson showed far more subtlety as an accompanist to such singers as Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday as well as such horn players as Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, said Ira Gitler, a jazz historian and producer.

Gitler added that Peterson's blues, swing and bop were unfailingly tasteful and elegant, which made him far more accessible to mass audiences than such avant-garde innovators as Gillespie or saxophonist John Coltrane.

Peterson first gained widespread notice in the Unites States during a 1949 Carnegie Hall performance, and he subsequently toured in the early 1950s with impresario Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic concert series.

Through recent years, Peterson continued a schedule of international concert and club dates even after a stroke in 1993 cost him full use of his left hand.

"I hate to sound egotistical, but I'm not an apprehensive person," he said soon after his recovery as he began making the jazz album "Side by Side" with classical violinist Itzhak Perlman. "I usually have some indication I more than likely can pull it off, or I wouldn't have gone, believe me. I hate halfway measures."

Oscar Emmanuel Peterson was born Aug. 15, 1925, in Montreal to parents from the West Indies. His father, a railroad porter and amateur organist, pushed music on his five children, beating them if they did not play well and criticizing them mercilessly even when they did.

Peterson recalled that after he started to establish himself, his father once brought home a Tatum recording and said, "You think you're so great. Why don't you put it on?"

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