Jazz Profiles from NPR
Oscar Peterson
Produced by David Tarnow

Oscar Peterson  

Oscar Peterson is the consummate jazz pianist. With incredible dexterity, drive and precision, Peterson assumes command over the entire keyboard. Despite his countless honors, awards, and critical acclaim, he has always set his own measures of success. His ability to fulfill such high standards makes Peterson exceptional both on and off the stage.

Listen to Benny Green, Maynard Ferguson and Harry Edison discuss Oscar Peterson

Peterson grew up in the tough St. Henri district of Montreal. As he recalls, "you had to be a fighter of sorts" in this bustling multi-ethnic neighborhood. His father saw musical training as an avenue towards greater opportunity for his children, an idea that was vindicated through young Oscar's tireless determination as a student. Peterson's teacher, Paul de Marky, had studied with a pupil of the great Franz Liszt. De Marky taught Peterson in the Western classical tradition, while fostering Oscar's interest in jazz as well.

At fourteen, Peterson won a radio talent contest that led to regular appearances on Canada's national network, the CBC. Gradually, word of Canada's young sensation began to spread throughout the jazz world. Though he received offers to join the bands of Count Basie and Jimmie Lunceford, Peterson declined due to his young age.

In 1949, Oscar finally made his US debut at the invitation of Norman Granz, who led a touring company of all-star jazz musicians called Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP). While in Montreal, Granz was greatly impressed by one of Peterson's live broadcasts that he heard on the radio in a taxi going to the airport. He immediately asked the cab driver to turn around and went to meet Peterson in person. Soon after, Peterson was featured on stage at Carnegie Hall with the JATP.

Listen to Oscar Peterson remember his first encounter with Norman Granz

Ray Brown  

On tour, Peterson and bassist Ray Brown (left) made up the JATP rhythm section, accompanying famous soloists like Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, and Lester Young. In 1952, Granz suggested that the two form a trio that could tour on its own. Peterson approached guitarist Herb Ellis and the die was cast for one of the most productive periods in the pianist's career.

Listen to Oscar Peterson reflect on his collaboration with Gillespie, Hawkins and Young

From the start, the trio was more than just a pianist with guitar and bass as accompaniment. Peterson insisted that the three musicians play as one, and his ambitious musical ideas required complex arrangements and rigorous rehearsals. Brown and Ellis recall Peterson's perfectionism and discipline in pushing each musician (including Oscar himself) to his utmost potential. Peterson would never allow anyone in the trio to compromise in the face of a challenging musical passage.

Listen to Ray Brown and Herb Ellis illustrate how Peterson was a tough musician who pushed them to their potential

Peterson's original trio is regarded by many as the best of its kind ever to assemble. A remarkably cohesive ensemble, the three musicians seemed to have telepathic powers of communication. Eventually, Ellis left the trio and Peterson decided to chart a new course by adding drummer Ed Thigpen instead of trying to replace his hard-swinging guitarist. Peterson began to explore new harmonic textures on the piano during this period. The new lineup carried on until the mid-sixties, playing up to the same high standards of excellence Peterson had set from the beginning.

Listen to Gene Lees compare Oscar's old trio to the new lineup

When Ray Brown also decided to step aside from the rigors of the road, Peterson broke up the trio and went to work as a solo pianist. Now free from the responsibility of coordinating with other musicians, Peterson recorded a series of solo albums that displayed a entirely new side of his genius.

Around this time, he also concentrated more on teaching and composing. In 1958, Peterson had joined Brown, Thigpen and clarinetist Phil Nimmons to open Canada's first school for jazz musicians, The Advanced School of Contemporary Music, and in the late 1960s, the school began to get more of his time.

Peterson's commitment to excellence continued unabated. He received Grammy Awards for Best Jazz Performance in 1975, '77, '78, and '80. In 1990, He reunited the original trio with Ellis and Brown, and the recording of their landmark reunion performance at the Blue Note in New York won two more Grammys.

In 1993, Peterson was delivering another fantastic performance at the Blue Note when he realized something was terribly wrong. He sensed a loss of control over the left side of his body, including his amazingly dexterous left hand. Incredibly, he finished his performance without anyone knowing that he had suffered a stroke, but its effects would continue to limit control of his left hand thereafter.

Listen to Benny Green and Oscar Peterson recall the onset of Oscar's stroke

Peterson's courage in the face of his illness is extraordinary, yet very typical of his lifelong attitude towards any challenge. After the stroke, he decided to continue playing and, unsurprisingly, he remains an awe-inspiring performer. He harbors no anger about the stroke, saying, "As long as I can fulfill my own requirements...I am going to keep playing." As both a musician and a man, Oscar Peterson continues to be one of the most inspiring individuals in jazz.

Listen to Peterson reflect on his decision to continue playing after his stroke


View the Oscar Peterson show playlist


ListenListen to the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for Peterson's classic disc The Sound of the Trio (Verve)

More InfoOscar Peterson's 'Jazz Odyssey' - Pianist Looks Back at His Life Among Legends

More InfoBrowse the NPR Jazz Web site -- NPRJazz.org


  • Browse the Official Oscar Peterson Web site