The Touch of a Master

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Oscar Peterson at the piano? Oscar Peterson was the piano.

His touch could be light and feathery, as ethereal as a memory. It could operate with blinding speed, releasing liquid lines that felt like a river bursting a dam. Or it could release rumbling cascades of notes, pounding out a stratagem of confidence and assurance.

Sometimes Peterson didn't move much, his body swaying slowly on ballads, head bowed in reverie. At other times, constant piston motion -- hands working the keys, arms sweeping up and down the keyboard -- gave Peterson a supple bounce, as if that bench were hot. When he got into a particularly pleasing groove, or when his sidemen spurred him on with their own invention, Peterson would smile, and get just a little more fired up.

Somehow, Peterson, who died Sunday at age 82 at his home in a suburb of Toronto, made it all look effortless.

Peterson was a towering figure -- literally -- well over 6 feet tall and sometimes heftier than he preferred. And his was a big sound -- a highly energized amalgam of stride, swing and bebop defined by technical command and virtuosity in service to creative expression, rather than indulgence in mere showmanship .

Speed, endurance, articulation and imagination -- Peterson embodied them in one perpetually explosive package, and he somehow made it look easy, as is evident in loads of clips on YouTube.

It was in Toronto that jazz producer-impresario Norman Granz discovered Peterson in 1949, pretty much by accident. The 24-year old Montreal-born Peterson was already inspiring shock and awe among musicians and listeners with his dazzling technique, melodic invention and quicksilver harmonic conceptions. Granz, in Toronto to promote an upcoming Jazz at the Philharmonic tour, heard Peterson on a live radio broadcast on the way back to the airport.

"The cab driver knew where we were playing and took him down to the Alberta Lounge," Peterson recalled for me in 1983 while playing a rare club date at Charlie's Georgetown. "And from there Norman took me to Carnegie Hall. I'm lucky; it was just one of those things."

At his first American concert as part of Jazz at the Philharmonic, Peterson wasn't even billed -- something about union restrictions. But the critical and audience reaction was so overwhelmingly positive that Granz, who would manage Peterson for the next 30 years, quickly added him to the JATP lineup as it toured the country.

Over the next half-century, Peterson became not only one of the most influential jazz pianists but by most accounts the most widely recorded of all time, in every possible setting -- solo, duets, the trios that were his most famous format, small ensembles and orchestras. Peterson himself joked that he hadn't the faintest idea how many records he'd made -- a quick glance at All Music shows more than 300.

In fact, the only time Peterson had stopped playing the piano since he'd started at the age of 6 was when he heard a record of Art Tatum playing "Tiger Rag." Peterson, by then a teenager, couldn't believe that one man, with only two hands, could play all those notes, and "retired," thankfully, only briefly. Ironically, that same indelible impression was left on a multitude of Peterson fans in the decades to come, though some critics knocked him for that sheer, overwhelming technique. In 1983, Peterson spoke about Tatum, but the words could just as well have applied to himself:

"I just couldn't believe someone had the sort of multifaceted mind that could weave all those marvelous harmonic sequences, the lattice-type runs, within the concept of the melody. The things that I love about Tatum are the things that most people probably ignore: They all look at the lightning runs and phrases, and I have to give him points on those, but it was his harmonic and rhythmic sense that got me. There's depth there. Unless you're a player, it might escape a lot of people. It didn't escape me."

Before Tatum died in 1956, he and Peterson would become friends, and though they never recorded together (amazing in that Tatum was almost as prolific as Peterson), the two piano giants did play together on occasion, the very first time in Washington in the early '50s. The Oscar Peterson Trio (according to Time magazine, the greatest in jazz history) was playing at a small club, Tatum somewhere nearby. They both ended up at an after-hours club where they were coaxed into the slight but joyful "Tea for Two."

In performance, Peterson clearly preferred a classical-like concert stage to a club milieu. For years, he'd play nightclubs only if air conditioners and cash registers were closed down -- meaning no drinks served -- during his performance. But Peterson's playing always seemed born of the energy and ambiance of clubs -- whether with the symbiotic drumless trios he favored in the '50s, the at-once ruminative and riotous solo excursions of the '70s, the voluminous duet conversations with guitarists Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis, or the vibrant collaborations with peers ranging from Lester Young and Louis Armstrong to Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie, all of whom appreciated -- make that loved -- Peterson's perpetually and powerfully swinging style.

Piano players in particular seemed to appreciate him: Count Basie said, "Oscar Peterson plays the best ivory box I've ever heard." Marian McPartland, who frequently hosted Peterson on her "Piano Jazz" radio show, called him "the finest technician that I have seen." Duke Ellington, who once called Peterson "maharajah of the keyboard," was the one who encouraged him to play solo to showcase "the caviar of his talents . . . without the eggs and the onions."

Two years ago, the Canadian government issued a 50-cent stamp to celebrate Oscar Peterson's 80th birthday. By then, he'd long left his own stamp on the jazz world.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company