Culture > Music

Great ones are rare

Music | Peterson took jazz beyond good

Issue: "Signs and wonders," Jan. 26, 2008

Oscar Peterson, the great Canadian jazz pianist, died on Dec. 23, 2007, at the age of 82, 14 years after suffering a stroke that, remarkably, despite compounding his chronic arthritis, only hindered the quality and frequency of his performances. He left behind a legacy that includes over 100 albums and the acclaim of a jazz community generally inclined to revere more troubled geniuses (cf. Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Bill Evans).

Peterson was not untroubled-his commitment to music cost him three marriages. But he was a model of sober productivity. Reared in a supportive and disciplined family, he'd become by his mid-20s a star in a crowded firmament. Over the years, he established himself and his various combos as standards of excellence and performed with everyone from Louis Armstrong to Duke Ellington.

"Good Peterson albums are abundant," wrote jazz critic Len Lyons in 1980, "but great ones are rare." Nat Hentoff listed Peterson's 1956 The Oscar Peterson Trio at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival and 1962 Night Train as his favorites, while admitting that it was "difficult . . . to select any as the best."

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Upon his death, Peterson became the subject of a uniquely 21st-century form of praise: the YouTube eulogy. Appended to the many performance clips posted by fans are encomiums such as, "I love the expression of instant pleasure when he starts playing," and, "These great jazz musicians will never realize what they brought to millions of people, how much they motivated us, made us cry, laugh, and dance." The very literacy (a rarity on the internet) of such comments is itself a tribute to the man who inspired them.

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