Thursday, February 04, 2016

`That Beautiful Soloist that I Had Heard'

The pianist Oscar Peterson (1925-2007) was born in Montreal, son of a father from St. Croix in the Virgin Islands and a mother from St. Kitts in the British West Indies. His father worked as a porter for the Canadian Pacific Railway. The most interesting passages in his autobiography, A Jazz Odyssey: The Life of Oscar Peterson (Continuum, 2002), are brief glimpses of family and teachers, and of life on the road. Sad to say, Peterson’s book is over-written when it’s not under-written, and always under-edited. An editor presumably would have discouraged him from including his poetry, most of it written in rhyming couplets, like this:

“I once knew a man who taught me to hate him—
Musically, that is; for I loved Art Tatum.”
Peterson discovered jazz thanks to his father, who listened to the radio late at night. The first name he hears during a broadcast is Benny Goodman. Later that week, with his father at work, the boy clandestinely turns on the radio in the living room:

“With my ear pressed tightly against the speaker so I would not have to play it too loudly and waken everybody in the house, I ever-so-slowly started moving the dial, searching for the sound of that big band, for the announcer had said that they would be broadcasting all week from the hotel. Suddenly my search came to an end. Here without doubt was that beautiful soloist that I had heard just nights before. He was in the middle of a tune that I was hearing for the first time: `Where or When.’”

Whitney Balliett described Peterson’s playing as “a pudding made of the leavings of Art Tatum, Nat Cole and Teddy Wilson.” He writes, “The arts have long come in two grades—the original and its popularization. Jazz is no exception,” and drew up a list to prove his point. Positing Art Tatum as an original, he pegged Peterson and Andre Previn (a wonderfully odd couple) as popularizers. This is not a blanket dismissal. Balliett concedes that popularizers are often “better technicians and steadier performers (read: mechanical).” That’s a complaint that dogged Peterson throughout his career. “At the same time,” Balliett says, “they are less inventive, less high-minded about their work, more ostentatious, and perhaps because they are borrowers, less sure of themselves.” The Peterson recording I listen to most often is Ben Webster Meets Oscar Peterson (1959), and mostly because of Webster. 

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