________________ CM . . . . Volume XIX Number 4. . . .September 28, 2012


Oscar Peterson: The Man and His Jazz.

Jack Batten.
Toronto, ON: Tundra Books, 2012.
165 pp., hardcover, $21.99.
ISBN 978-1-77049-269-1.

Subject Headings:
Peterson, Oscar, 1925-2007-Juvenile literature.
Pianists-Canada-Biography-Juvenile literature.
Jazz musicians-Canada-Biography-Juvenile literature.

Grades 7-11 / Ages 12-16.

Review by Val Ken Lem.

**** /4



The audience of reasonably sophisticated jazz fans recognized that Oscar was different from other pianists of his generation. Among Oscar's contemporaries, the accepted style was to emphasize the right hand; with the left, the pianists played one or two chords in each bar while the right hand ran all over the upper half of the keyboard, throwing off single note improvisations.

But that wasn't Oscar's way. He was a two handed pianist, playing full and rich chords and producing improvisations with both hands. He showed phenomenal technique, getting around the keyboard in an exceptionally swift and confident fashion. Notes ran from under his fingers in near blurs. And Oscar radiated power. That might have been what most roused the audience. Oscar played hard, generating a strong, swinging beat that seemed to sweep everything before it.


AOscar Peterson was born in Montreal in August, 1925, the fourth of five children of Daniel and Olivia. His father was a CPR rail porter and Oscar's first music teacher. All of the children practiced on the family's leased upright piano, and the older children, especially Daisy, ensured that the younger ones learned the lessons that their stern father prescribed. The Peterson kids also learned to play brass instruments that were borrowed from the local Negro Community Center. Oscar's musical gifts including perfect pitch, and an infallible musical memory set him apart from his siblings who had to work much harder for musical prowess. Despite the financial challenges the family faced, Daniel paid for private lessons with Lou Hopper, an accomplished classically trained jazz pianist, when Oscar was 12 years of age. A few years later, Oscar studied with McGill music professor Paul de Marky, a classical pianist who also understood jazz piano. The lessons ended before a year had passed as his teacher had taken him as far as he could. The teenage prodigy took no further formal lessons.

      Batten recounts Oscar's early interest in jazz music and explains in a masterful manner what this form of music is about. Batten explores musical influences that inspired Oscar, including the mentorship of Johnny Holmes who played trumpet and was the leader of one of Montreal's most successful big bands in the 1940s. Peterson's big break came in September 1949 with his debut at Carnegie Hall when he was twenty five. Music promoter Norman Granz brought him to New York as a guest performer in his Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) concert. Granz became a dear friend and longtime business associate.

     In describing Peterson's lengthy musical career, Batten introduces many of the key musicians who played with Peterson and the distinctive skills that they brought to their performances. Because Peterson is the most recorded Canadian musician, it is impossible to cover all of his recordings. Instead, Batten focuses on some key ones, even going into considerable detail on the features of specific tracks. The selected discography highlights only eight recordings that were made between the 1950s and 1999. Batten doesn't neglect Peterson's personal life. As a child, Peterson spent more than a year in hospital recovering from tuberculosis. All of his marriages are briefly discussed, and readers will recognize Peterson's efforts to stay close to his loved ones by having them tour with him, something that he couldn't do with his first wife and their five children. Some of the struggles that Peterson faced with racism both in Canada and the United States are explored. Outside of music, Peterson's interests in fly fishing and photography brought him solace. Over the years, he received many awards and honours. When he suffered a stroke in 1993, Peterson considered abandoning performing but bounced back and continued playing, composing and recording into the current century. He died at his home at the age of eighty two on December 23, 2007..

     Jack Batten is a former jazz reviewer for the Globe and Mail and a prolific writer of mysteries and nonfiction, including well received biographies for young readers of Tom Longboat, Edith Cavell, and a history of World War I. His biography of Oscar Peterson is an excellent work that will grab the reader from the start to the too-soon conclusion. If Batten overstates a point at times, for example in describing jazz legend Louis Armstrong's smile: " It was as if a thousand watt lightbulb had been turned on" , his effusive writing style succeeds in conveying visceral descriptions that are heavy with the enthusiasm he has for his subject. Even readers who know very little about music, and jazz in particular, will be able to read Batten's accounts of the origins of jazz and Peterson's unique performances to both visualize the actions of the musicians and imagine the aural qualities under discussion.

      The book includes a useful index. The selected bibliography contains only six titles, but some others are also identified as sources of some of the quotations used. More than thirty black and white photographs are included. Unfortunately, a few of these are of rather poor quality, and towards the end of the book, the photographs are not always positioned in close proximity to the corresponding text. This is a minor complaint. The inclusion of some websites, such as the official Oscar Peterson website, would have been ideal. Libraries that already own Reva Marin's Oscar: The Life and Music of Oscar Peterson (Groundwood Books, 2003) will be well-served by that work.

Highly Recommended.

Val Ken Lem, a librarian at Toronto's Ryerson University, now owns a few Peterson recordings.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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