(Soundbite of music)


That's Oscar Peterson playing the piano, one of the world's great jazz pianists. The man Duke Ellington called the maharaja of the piano. Peterson has died. He became a jazz star while he was still a teenager in Canada. And over the course of seven decades, he played with some of the biggest names in music.

NPR's Neda Ulaby reports.

NEDA ULABY: Here's how good Oscar Peterson was.

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ULABY: Supposedly, he once leaned over while performing and lit a cigarette for a lady in the front row with his right, his left hand never missed a beat.

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ULABY: Peterson first learned his sparklingly precise style at the church he grew up next to in Montreal. He started on the trumpet at age 5, but he soon switched to piano. By the time he was a teenager, Oscar Peterson had his own radio show.

Unidentified Man: All now hang on to your seats folks. Here's Oscar Peterson with his version of "Chinatown."

(Soundbite of song, "Chinatown")

ULABY: Oscar Peterson told the CBC that he came from a musical family headed by a father born in the Virgin Islands.

Mr. OSCAR PETERSON (Jazz Pianist): The interesting part about my dad is that he became a musician because of being a sailor. From what I understand, he was a bosun on the ship and he bought himself some kind of a little organ. I never did find exactly what kind.

ULABY: Peterson's dad would ship out and give each of his kids musical assignments they were expected to have completed by the time he got back. When Peterson was a young man, a jazz impresario named Norman Granz convinced Peterson to leave Canada, which he didn't want to do, and play at Carnegie Hall. Granz told NPR in 1999 that he didn't want to deal with immigration or unions so he just flipped him on.

Mr. NORMAN GRANZ (Jazz Impresario): I simply said, at the right time, I'm going to announce that I have a surprise for the public.

ULABY: This is what Oscar Peterson's Carnegie Hall debut sounded like.

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Mr. GRANZ: And Oscar came out and actually destroyed everyone.

ULABY: Peterson destroyed Marian McPartland shortly after she came to the U.S. in the late 1940s. Like everyone else, she was impressed by Peterson's musicality.

Ms. MARIAN McPARTLAND (Jazz Pianist): Well, it was his incredible technique and feeling of swing, I mean, he could swing everybody under the table.

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ULABY: Oscar Peterson had a stroke in 1993 that affected his left hand, but not his right; that's the one he used for lighting cigarettes for ladies while he played. At his peak, Oscar Peterson sounded like he had 10 fingers on each hand.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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