All due respect to the formidable pianist, dead at age 82 — Oscar Peterson’s jazz has never been my personal cup of tea. A consolidator and conservator rather than a explorer and originator, the man mastered jazz conventions established by the generation before him, and found joy in spinning endless variations that celebrated rather than questioned them.
There’s nothing wrong, in my book, with hearty swing and the blues, both of which Peterson could summon in a snap — though one might quibble with that snap, his facility, his overwhelming technique sometimes distracting from any simple core of musical feeling. Of his recordings, his trio’s 1962 hit album Night Train, his early ’50s date backing Lester Young, and ’70s duets with Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie and fellow pianist Count Basie are what I’ll return to (as soon as I’ve made the move: my 18,000 cds, 4,000 lps, countless cassettes, books, paper files and some massive furniture go from my 13-year office in Greenwich Village to a convenient basement in Brooklyn tomorrow, so it’s all presently inaccessible . . .) because on them Peterson seems warmed, humbled and best engaged by his own personal idols.
Extraordinary technique can lead to sublimity, it’s true — but given Peterson and Thelonious Monk (his contemporary) as poles along a creative continuum, I lean hard towards the jagged and surprising rather than the dazzling and comforting. Incredibly, a bridge of those extremes exists: hear the delightful, still little known piano jazz of Herbie Nichols (especially his trio albums on Blue Note), who in a too-short life penned among other tunes Billie Holiday’s final signature, “Lady Sings the Blues.”
Two personal memories of Oscar Peterson do not endear him to me: In the late ’70s I attended his performance at Rick’s Cafe Americain as a reviewer for the Chicago Daily News, with Lauren Deutsch, a petite young woman (now executive director of the Jazz Institute of Chicago) who used a silent Leica and no flash to advance the motto on her card, “Sensitive Photographer.” We sat at a front table. Having predetermined an angle from which she could capture the great man’s image, she rested her camera on the table rather than holding it to her eye, waiting until he was into his first song before taking an image (muffled “click!”), pausing, then taking another (muted “click!”). He looked up straight at her, without missing a beat, and breathed almost under his breath, “Are you quite finished?” She decided to be.
At the International Association of Jazz Educationannual conference in Toronto in 2003, Peterson, a Canadian citizen, was keynote speaker at the gala dinner, and took the opportunity to aver that jazz journalists are responsible for much of what is wrong in the world. He had not notably suffered from critical drubbing; though that Peterson-Monk divide does exist, there were significant writers on his side.
In Miles Ornette Cecil — Jazz Beyond Jazz — yes! out now! steeply discounted on Amazon! — I describe a Carnegie Hall concert during a long-ago George Wein jazz festival at which Oscar Peterson and Cecil Taylor both performed; here’s the excerpt:
“In 1984, producer George Wein — himself a pianist, who had introduced Cecil’s quartet with Steve Lacy to general audiences and important critics (see Whitney Balliet’s New Yorker review) at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956 — booked Cecil and Oscar Peterson, the reigning virtuoso pianist of mainstream jazz, into Carnegie Hall for a Kool Jazz Festival concert. Pre-event speculation, rampant though unfounded, centered on the question of whether they would duet, as Peterson had done with Herbie Hancock and Cecil did with Mary Lou Williams. They didn’t, and neither did their musics suggest any continuity or continuum. Their separate fan bases, though integrated in the hall’s seats, exhibited no catholicity of taste; instead they seemed at hostile odds with each other. The event served to show just how far from “jazz” Cecil was still regarded as being.
Peterson played first, with bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen and drummer Martin Drew. Massive in a plaid tuxedo jacket, the 59-year-old Peterson spun forth a jazz piano vocabulary that paid homage to his inspiration Art Tatum, the blind improviser who from the mid 1930s to his death in 1956 was regarded by other pianists – even the great Fats Waller – as “God.”
Peterson’s piano technique was impeccable, as was his presence; he easily reeled off speedy, intricate but evenly articulated single note runs, and showed enviable independence of his right and left hands, producing counterpoint that would have seemed to require four hands, not just two. He performed his original, classically-tinged “Balade” with considerable tenderness, swung hard throughout a medley of themes associated with Count Basie, and was so expert at controlling the piano’s volume that he could comp under Ørsted Pedersen’s bass solos busily but without overwhelming the upright bass.
Limitations of Peterson’s musicality only applied to his aesthetic choices, such as an interpretation of Billy Strayhorn’s composition “Lush Life” that made more of the song’s superficial glitter than underlying melancholy. He gave the Ellington-Juan Tool warhorse “Caravan” an anachronistic two-beat holiness, and introduced another of his own pieces, “On Danish Shore” with a fast boogie-woogie bass figure. His chops finessed ideas derived from Swing Era pianist Teddy Wilson and bebop prince Bud Powell as well as Tatum, but after a while his dazzling finger work became predictable, and the effects clichéd. His skills were prodigious, even astonishing – but his imagination was less involving. Cecil’s music, while maybe an acquired taste, was delivered with equal but completely different virtuosity. It was as if he used his variety of attacks to re-sequence the pitches of a scale, and used clusters or simultaneously struck adjacent keys to create new notes belonging to no known scale. He drove his rhythms as hard as Peterson had – harder, viciously – and he didn’t swing so much as pound. He was elegant and exotic, too, coming out to the piano from the wings with darting moves and ghostly cries, clad in silk pajamas and a headdress.
Within minutes of Cecil’s opening statement, Peterson’s admirers were leaving their seats and streaming for the hall’s exits, noisily – as they wouldn’t dare do during any typical Carnegie concert. In defense of their hero, Cecil’s adherents grew loudly appreciative, clapping in time and cheering his most intense passages. This was as rude as leaving the place to anyone who wanted to actually listen to Cecil play, but he continued unaffected. The concert included no duet, no duel and no acknowledgement of mutual respect, either. The two master pianists acted like they’d never heard of, much less heard, each other.”