Oscar Emmanuel Peterson died on December 23, 2007, at the age of 82; he was a Canadian jazz pianist and composer.
Born to immigrants from the West Indies on August 15, 1925, his father worked as a porter for Canadian Pacific Railway. Peterson grew up in the neighbourhood of Little Burgundy in Montreal, Quebec.
It was in this predominantly black neighbourhood that he found himself surrounded by the jazz culture that flourished in the early 20th century.
At the age of nine Peterson played piano with control that impressed professional musicians.
For many years his piano studies included four to six hours of practice daily. Only in his later years did he decrease his daily practice to just one or two hours.
In 1940, at fourteen years of age, Peterson won the national music competition organized by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
After that victory, he dropped out of school and became a professional pianist working for a weekly radio show, and playing at hotels and music halls.
One of his first exposures to Tatum’s musical talents came early in his teen years when his father played a recording of Tatum’s “Tiger Rag” for him, and Peterson was so intimidated by what he heard that he became disillusioned about his own playing, to the extent of refusing to play the piano at all for several weeks.
In his own words, “Tatum scared me to death,” and Peterson was “never cocky again” about his mastery at the piano.
Tatum was a model for Peterson’s musicianship during the 1940s and 1950s.
Tatum and Peterson eventually became good friends, although Peterson was always shy about being compared with Tatum and rarely played the piano in Tatum’s presence.
In the course of his career, Peterson developed a reputation as a technically brilliant and melodically inventive jazz pianist and became a regular on Canadian radio from the 1940s.
His name was already recognized in the United States.
However, his 1949 debut at Carnegie Hall was uncredited; owing to union restrictions, his appearance could not be billed.
Through Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic he was able to play with the major jazz artists of the time.
A two-day reunion with Herb Ellis and Ray Brown in 1990 (which also included Bobby Durham) resulted in four CDs.
Peterson was felled by a serious stroke in 1993 that knocked him out of action for two years.
He gradually returned to the scene, however, although with a weakened left hand.
Even when he wasn’t 100 percent, Peterson was a classic improviser, one of the finest musicians that jazz has ever produced.
The pianist appeared on an enormous number of records through the years.
In 1993, Peterson suffered a serious stroke that weakened his left side and sidelined him for two years.
However he overcame this setback and went back to touring, recording, and composing on a limited basis.
In 1997 he received a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement and an International Jazz Hall of Fame Award.