Oscar Peterson’s dazzling keyboard technique, commanding sense of swing and mastery of different piano styles could leave even his most accomplished peers awe-struck. His death brought forth tributes from jazz pianists spanning the generations.
Fellow jazz piano legend Dave Brubeck said he was “saddened by the news of Oscar’s passing.” Peterson died Sunday of kidney failure at his home in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga.
The 87-year-old Brubeck recalled the first time he ever heard a Peterson recording shortly after jazz impresario Norman Granz introduced the Canadian pianist to American audiences at a 1949 Carnegie Hall concert.
“I was in awe,” Brubeck wrote in an e-mail Tuesday to The Associated Press. “Every jazz pianist would soon know that Oscar was a master.”
Decades later, Brubeck found himself asked to help fill in at a 1993 Carnegie Hall concert after Peterson had to cancel his appearance because he had suffered a serious stroke.
“Ahmad Jamal, McCoy Tyner and I were asked to come to Carnegie Hall and take Oscar’s place, when he was unable to perform. I’m not sure that the three of us playing at the top of our form were able to fill his shoes, but we gave it a try. Oscar, as Duke Ellington would say, was `beyond category.”’
Herbie Hancock, another jazz piano legend, said Peterson’s influence could be found “in the generations that came after him.”
“Oscar Peterson redefined swing for modern jazz pianists for the latter half of the 20th century up until today,” Hancock, 67, wrote in an e-mail. “I consider him the major influence that formed my roots in jazz piano playing. He mastered the balance between technique, hard blues grooving, and tenderness. … No one will ever be able to take his place.”
Peterson had a similar impact on a young Diana Krall growing up in Nanaimo, British Columbia. She was spotted playing in local clubs by bassist Ray Brown, a longtime member of the Oscar Peterson Trio, who encouraged her to move to Los Angeles.
Peterson “was the reason I became a jazz pianist,” the 43-year-old singer-pianist told the Los Angeles Times. “In my high school yearbook it says that my goal is to become a jazz pianist like Oscar Peterson.
“I didn’t know then we’d become such close friends over the years. We were together at his house in October, playing and singing songs together. Now it’s almost impossible for me to think of him in the past tense.”
While Peterson was known for his lightning-fast keyboard runs, jazz piano veteran Hank Jones called attention to his finesse and deft touch on melodic slow-tempo tunes.
“He had a beautiful approach to ballads, which a lot of pianists forget,” the 89-year-old Jones told The Canadian Press.
Marian McPartland, host of National Public Radio’s long-running “Piano Jazz” series, called Peterson “the finest technician that I have seen.” She recalled first meeting Peterson when she and her husband, jazz cornetist Jimmy McPartland, opened for him at the Colonial Tavern in Toronto in the 1940s.
“He was always wonderful to me and I have always felt very close to him,” the 89-year-old jazz pianist said in a statement. “I played at his tribute concert at Carnegie Hall earlier this year and performed `Tenderly,’ which was always my favorite piece of his.”
The youngest pianist appearing at the tribute was 20-year-old Eldar Djangirov, who played the fast tempo “Place St. Henri,” named for the Montreal district where Peterson grew up.
Djangirov said he decided to become a jazz musician after listening to Peterson’s records as a boy growing up in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan _ an indication of how far Peterson’s reach spread.
“He was the first I ever heard and my main artistic influence,” Djangirov said. “He would play things with one hand that most piano players couldn’t do with both of their hands.”