Oscar Peterson, or “O.P.”, was raised in the Montréal neighborhood known as La Petite-Bourgogne. At age 5, he took an interest in both the piano and the trumpet, but a brief struggle with tuberculosis forced him to focus solely on the piano.
Peterson’s father and sister, both musicians, were his first teachers. Peterson developed a strong appreciation for classical music, but his jazz-rich neighborhood made a strong impression on him.
Peterson was highly inspired and intimidated by jazz pianist Art Tatum. He recalled shunning his piano for nearly a month after hearing Tatum for the first time.
At age 14, Oscar Peterson began studying with classical pianist Paul de Marky, who encouraged his love for jazz. It was around this time that his sister encouraged him to audition for an amateur contest held on a CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) radio station. Peterson stole the gold, and this new recognition landed him a weekly gig on the Montréal radio station CKAK.
By age 17, Oscar Peterson had his first experience playing in a band when he joined the famous Canadian jazz ensemble, the Johnny Holmes Orchestra.
Rise to Fame:
Oscar Peterson formed his first trio in 1947. While performing at Montréal’s Alberta Lounge, record producer Norman Granz invited Peterson to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Peterson accepted the offer, and the two built a solid work relationship, with Granz acting as Peterson’s manager.
The trio toured the world in the 1950s, performing in Granz’s own project, “Jazz at the Philharmonic.” As the trio grew weary from travel, Peterson formed a new trio with Herb Ellis and Ray Brown. The group lasted an impressive five years, and is known to this day as Oscar Peterson’s most famous trio.
In the late 1970s, Peterson experimented with duos, working briefly with Dizzy Gillespie and Joe Pass. He began performing regularly as a solo artist, producing an average of five albums per year in the 1980s. This hectic schedule led to a more relaxing career in composing during the 1990s.
Commitments to Education:
Oscar Peterson was a founder of Toronto’s Advanced School of Contemporary Music, which made its debut in 1960. After three years of working with the school, putting focus on musical improvisation and jazz history, Peterson’s schedule proved to be too demanding for him to properly dedicate himself to the cause.
From 1991 to 1994, Oscar Peterson was chancellor of Toronto’s York University. After Peterson’s death in 2007, York University and the Province of Ontario set an annual budget of $4 million CAD ($3.3 million USD) to be awarded to underprivileged York University students as a tribute to the great Oscar Peterson.
Oscar Peterson suffered a stroke in 1993 which caused him to have limited ability in his left hand. Peterson continued to perform, but almost exclusively with his right hand.
In 2007, Peterson died at his home in Mississauga, Ontario, from renal failure. He enjoyed a career of nearly 70 years, and produced over 200 albums.
Awards & Recognitions:
- Won 7 Grammys, and over 10 other prestigious awards.
- Was an Officer of the Order of Canada.
- Was a Chevalier of the National Order of Québec.
- Was Officer of L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres of France.
- Received honorary doctorates from 10 Canadian Universities, and one from Northwestern University in Illinois.
Songs to Know:
- “The Lonesome One”
- “Ballad to the East”
- “Laurentide Waltz”
- “Nigerian Marketplace”