The jazz piano virtuoso Oscar Peterson died on Sunday at the age of 82. A gentle giant of a man, Peterson set the standard for taste and invention on the instrument in the course of his long career. Although his greatest influence was undoubtedly Art Tatum, he incorporated elements of Nat King Cole and Teddy Wilson into his own inimitable sound.
Norman Granz discovered him in 1949 and put him to work in his Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts. In the 1958 video above (recently retrieved from Dutch film archives), Peterson accompanies a JATP crew including Peterson’s trio mates Roy Brown (bass) and Herb Ellis (guitar) as well as Ella Fitzgerald, Stuff Smith (violin), and Roy Eldridge (trumpet). Despite his ability to dominate in any setting, he was the perfect accompanist. An absolute master of the instrument, he termed his driving force “the will to perfection.” Peterson biographer and jazz writer Gene Lees, on the other hand, termed it his “will to swing.”
Among the many fine obituaries are those by Richard Harrington in the Washington Post, Don Heckman in the Los Angeles Times, and Richard Severo in the New York Times. Severo captures a few of the notable elements of Peterson’s mastery:
Mr. Peterson was one of the greatest virtuosos in jazz, with a piano technique that was always meticulous and ornate and sometimes overwhelming. But rather than expand the boundaries of jazz, he used his gifts in the service of moderation and reliability, gratifying his devoted audiences whether he was playing in a trio or solo or accompanying some of the most famous names of jazz. His technical accomplishments were always evident, almost transparently so.
Listening to him speak, one could also hear what a civilized man and natural teacher he was. In the video below (from Montreux in 1977), Peterson performs Fats Waller’s “You Look Good to Me” with Ray Brown and Niels Pedersen, both on double bass. There isn’t much room for Peterson’s left hand, but this is a characteristically joyous performance. Peterson’s death marks a great loss to the world of music.