________________ CM . . . . Volume XI Number 1 . . . . September 3, 2004


Oscar: The Life and Music of Oscar Peterson.

Reva Marin.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood, 2003.
160 pp., cloth, $19.95.
ISBN 0-88899-537-7.

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

Grades 5-8 / Ages 10-13.

Review by Lorraine Douglas.

*** /4


..."Oop-Bop-Sha-Bam" is Oscar's first recording as a singer. Oscar's voice is light and pleasant and sounds a lot like Nat Cole's. Oscar would sing on several more recordings over the next few years, but then he stopped singing for quite a while, at least on his records. The story is that Nat Cole went to hear Oscar play one night-by then they were friends-and after the show he went backstage and made Oscar a proposal. Cole said he would stop playing the piano if Oscar would stop singing. The two men agreed. Oscar didn't sing again on records until he put out an album in tribute to Nat Cole, the year after Cole's death.


This biography of Canadian pianist Oscar Peterson provides readers - even those who may know nothing about music - with an understanding of the world of jazz. Marin has been involved with jazz as a musician and teacher for more than twenty years. She meticulously explains all the different styles and schools. Also, she gives us a glimpse behind the scenes into the business of music and how the great friendships of these talented players influence the world of jazz and personal development. This biography is a very readable portrait of Oscar Peterson and his remarkable achievements as an internationally recognized artistic genius. Oscar is packed with information with short biographies of notable jazz legends like Duke Ellington and Art Tatum; a listing of Peterson's most important recordings; a bibliography of books on Peterson and even web sites about jazz.

     The book begins with an introduction which tells a rivetting story of the racial injustice Oscar faced as a young boy in school in Montreal. He came from a proud family which had immigrated from the West Indies in hopes of a better life. His father, Daniel Peterson, was demanding and drove his children to perfection. Oscar was ill with tuberculosis as a child, and, for more than a year, he could not play music. After Oscar's recovery, his father decided that Oscar should give up playing the trumpet and concentrate on playing the piano. All of the children in the family were musically gifted, but Oscar decided at an early age to make jazz his life despite his father's disapproval of the musical genre. The biography details how Peterson challenged himself to become the best jazz pianist he could possibly be; how he created the enormously successful Oscar Peterson trio in 1954 with Ray Brown and Herb Ellis; and how he took the unusual step of establishing a school for jazz students in Toronto. The author also explains how Oscar began his touring and recording career, and she provides some information on his personal life - but the focus of the biography is on Oscar Peterson as a musician.

     The book is written in a smooth and very easy to understand style even though much of the material is quite complex. The chapters are arranged thematically, and a number of dramatic events in Peterson's life are included. For example, the chapter "A Taste of Jim Crow" relates the black musicians' negative experiences in the United States while describing the grinding and difficult life of touring. The incidents of prejudice make for compelling reading, and Peterson also faced racial prejudice in Canada and was outspoken in his advocacy for minorities. Marin is a sensitive writer who is very careful in her language throughout the book. But one unfortunate turn of phrase states that Herb Ellis had a problem with alcohol and "turned himself in" to Alcoholics Anonymous. This wording may suggest to some readers that alcoholism is a criminal act rather than a disease.

     In some ways this book is reminiscent of The Man Who Ran Faster than Everyone: The Story of Tom Longboat by Jack Batten (Tundra, 2002). They are both stories of remarkable Canadians who achieved international recognition because of their courage and determination in spite of prejudice. They are not celebrity style biographies as the stories are told plainly, and the author lets the person's story inspire the reader. Marin's writing is an exemplary work of nonfiction, but it is encased in a book cover which has little visual appeal for young readers. The short biographies of famous jazz musicians are also set against a gray background which gives the book a dark look. This book was nominated this year for the Norma Fleck Award.


Lorraine Douglas is a Winnipeg, MB, writer and artist.

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

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ISSN 1201-9364
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