Oscar Peterson: Consolidator, conservator

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.”

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  1. Bob Walsh says

    JBJ: In the Seventies, as American Airlines director of community and cultural affairs responsible for the American College Jazz Festival, I took John Lewis, the ACJF music director, to lunch near the Kennedy Center. As we were departing, I asked John who was his favorite jazz pianist. Surprisingly, he said it was THELONIOUS MONK. (I never had a chance to ask a follow-up as to why.) Have you ever heard John explain why?
    HM: No, that’s a surprise to me. John Lewis had quite broad and exploratory tastes evidently, as demonstrated by his very early recognition and endorsement of Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, who he brought to the attention of Atlantic Records, Gunther Schuller, and eventually helped get to New York.

  2. bennie says

    My remembrance of Oscar goes back to the 50s when I first heard him on record and in various venues when he visited New York City. I finally met him in person in the late 80s when he visited Los Angeles to play at Ray Brown’s jazz club, The Loa. A day before opening there, he visited the best piano store in Los Angeles owned by David Abell. There he delighted in playing the various fine pianos that David stocked, including his favorite Bosendorfer brand. For 3 hours he played non-stop, testing and evaluating the many various brands and models that David carried. He was very personable, conversational, and unselfishly shared his tremendous talent with those in the store, including me who he had never met before. In our brief conversation, we discovered that we had similar backgrounds in that our parents both were immigrants from the West Indies. His immigrated directly to Canada, and mine immigrated directly to New York City. Also our fathers were music lovers and amateur musicians, and started each of us on music lessons around age five. The next evening, Oscar opened at the Loa to tumultuous applause from the crowd, and rave reviews in the local newspapers. But I shall never forget those few hours that I spent up-close and personal with the great, one and only, Oscar Peterson at David Abell’s fine piano emporium.
    HM: Thanks for this note. Though this may not be the most appropriate place to do so, I want to take the opportunity to rebut my ArtsJournal colleague Terry Teachout in his claim that critics are too musicially uneducated to appreciate a virtuoso such as Peterson, who he believes is one of the few to approach a classical pianist’s technique. The point many of Peterson’s critics, myself included, make is that technique must serve the music. Earl “Fatha” Hines, Art Tatum (font of much of Peterson’s style), Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Erroll Garner, Bill Evans and Cecil Taylor are among the jazz-identified musicians who developed their own amazing techniques to serve their own personal musics. Teddy Wilson, Dr. Billy Taylor, Hank Jones, Barry Harris, Tommy Flanagan and Kenny Barron are among those who had or have extraordinary pianistic technique, perhaps not so far from a classical performer’s — and certainly “classical” as relates to the imperatives of jazz. Peterson’s peers appreciated him, of course — why not? as he was often at his best accompanying them, and listeners who lean towards the classical mission are sure to admire his keyboard work. Peterson’s critics found something genuine to carp about: the limits of his emotive range and imagination, regardless of Olympian technique. Perhaps music journalists such as myself do need to sit down and listen to all his recorded ouevre to out what’s unique and enduring. Alas, life is short, and any sampling of Peterson’s outpourings demonstrates his consistency, strengths and weaknesses alike.

  3. andrew says

    If Lauren was aware of how musicians think and operate she would’ve attempted to take that photo in during the second or third tune.
    Critics do carp about the limits of Peterson’s emotive range and imagination. But they never mention his solo recordings ‘Tracks’ or ‘My Favorite Instrument’. They should listen to Little Girl Blue and Dancing on the Ceiling.
    HM: Point taken regarding the photography — I don’t recall whether she waited for a tune or two, she may have. I don’t recall ever seeing the photo, either. I’ll ask her about that. Thanks for suggesting those specific recordings, Andrew, I’ll check ’em out.

  4. Tony says

    Howard, I agree with you 100%. I suspect many have eschewed a candid look at OPs artistic merit under the stricture of not speaking ill of the dead. Whether a nice guy or not is rather immaterial. As a jazz performer, he was something of a bore–like one of those fellas who try to overwhelm you in conversation. He was a jazz pianist for those who don’t really like jazz.

  5. OP Fan says

    Disagree 100%.
    Are you simply pushing your own writing stylings? (Now out on Amazon — deeply disounted!) Not deeply discounted enough in my opinion. The exact the purpose of your rant is unknown. OP was a great musician who will be long remembered for his musical genius for generations to come. Your criticism will long be forgotten tomorrow. Doing so in a blog after his passing is unforgiveable . . . even with your feable attempt of “in all due respect”.

  6. Paul Botts says

    “He was a jazz pianist for those who don’t really like jazz.”
    Oh for…is it really necessary to regurgitate now the same nonsense that Peterson heard for 50 years? His having a grudge against jazz writers seems completely unsurprising to me.
    As a lifelong jazz lover and a semi-professional jazz pianist myself, I’ve always loved the passion and flair and above all the wit of Oscar’s playing. And it has long struck me that critics who gloss over his astounding driving rhythmic power (including but not limited to that infectious driving swing) were missing something really damned important to jazz in particular. My favorite recordings of him are the ones solo or with a piano/bass/guitar trio; for Oscar a drummer was pretty close to redundant.
    Given his late-career writing and solo recording, for people in 2008 to be repeating the same 1960s conventional wisdom about his supposed lack of lyricism and exploration is just silly. And the other thing he did so so well is accompany great jazz singers — some of the sexiest music in my whole collection is on the album he recorded with Sarah Vaughan in about 1978.

  7. Tony says

    I would only add there is a reason that the same criticism followed OP for 50 years. For me, jazz is “the sound of surprise.” OP never surprised me once, and I dare say, take an OP album from any point in his career, and tell if there is much difference (i.e artistic growth and change)? He had great chops, if by that you mean he could hit all the notes, but his aesthetic legacy is negligible.