To acknowledge the 90th birth anniversary of the virtuoso pianist Oscar Peterson (1925-2007), I’m appending a verbatim interview that I conducted with him for a piece on his excellent autobiography, A Jazz Odyssey, and a liner note that I wrote for the release of Oscar Peterson’s Big 4, Live In Japan, an after-the-fact issue of a 1982 concert for Pablo Records. Other references to the maestro on this blog-site can be found here.
Oscar Peterson (on A Jazz Odyssey):
TP: Why the autobiography? When did you start thinking about it, and what steps did you take in beginning to write and conceptualize it?
PETERSON: Well, it started, believe it or not, about 15 years ago, when the late Norman Granz spoke to me and said, “You ought to think about writing a book about the way you came from Canada, from Montreal, and got into the jazz ranks, and got into Jazz at the Phil and all the work that you’ve done.” And I didn’t give it that much thought. I tried several ways. I tried it with the inevitable tape recorder, and I didn’t like that. Then finally it resolved to the point where Norman suggested that I bring in Richard Palmer and have him critique and then editorialize things I had written already. Richard had already written a book on me in London… Richard Palmer consented to act in the role of an editor of stuff that I had written, and he came over and spent time with me. Nothing much happened for a while after that, because I became very, very busy and decided to give a rest to it. Then we resumed…
TP: What was the year?
PETERSON: I can’t remember the year.
TP: Was it ten years ago? Five years ago?
PETERSON: It was in that time period. I can’t give it to you chronologically, because I don’t remember myself.
But Richard came over, then we let it go for a while, and then we decided to complete the book within the last year-and-a-half, and we sort of went over it tooth-and-nail and decided that it was as good as it was going to be.
TP: When did you actually start the writing? Right after Norman Granz made the suggestion?
PETERSON: I started approximately a month after he suggested it, which was about 15 years ago.
TP: So this book has been in the process of creation since 1986 or 1987.
PETERSON: That’s correct.
TP: Did you just start writing, or did you think about a form? For instance, did you write it in chronology, as the book, or did you write about different subjects?
PETERSON: I wrote about my feelings and my thoughts about how deeply I wanted to get involved in the professional end of the jazz world. Because I had to make that decision after having met Norman Granz. So what I did was go back and write a chronological report on how I started studying, my family and so forth and so on. Then I got into the part where I left the United States, and then talked about the various people I worked with and how they influenced me and what I learned from them.
TP: Had you written before, besides correspondence and so forth?
PETERSON: No. I’m a piano player, remember?
TP: I do. Is writing something that came naturally to you, or did you work on it with the sort of determination that marks your approach to the instrument?
PETERSON: Well, literature was one of my better subjects in school, so I enjoyed it from that end in the beginning. But I did not realize what a monumental project I had taken on until I was well into it.
TP: You say literature was one of your better subjects. Who are the writers you favor? Did you have any stylistic models?
PETERSON: Not really. I just enjoyed the courses in school, in literature, and I enjoyed writing different things.
TP: Any two or three favorite novelists?
PETERSON: I read various things over the years. My memory is failing now, so I can’t remember them all. I remember reading everything from detective stories, like Mickey Spillane and things like that, and I read a lot of scientific things. I was interested in space and things like that. So I never paid the authors that much mind; I just enjoyed what I was reading.
TP: Well, there’s a real authorial voice in the book, which is not something that always comes naturally. It looks to me like you did a great deal of writing-editing-rewriting-editing…
PETERSON: No, I didn’t. Richard really did not rewrite hardly any of my thing, because he wanted it to be totally in my words, as he put it. I appreciated that about him, because I didn’t want it to be false fiction.
TP: I meant rewriting by you. It had the rather smooth feeling that comes when you’ve really worked on something and honed it.
PETERSON: I’m going to say this to you. Over the years, when things have happened, funny instances have taken place in my life, and I’ve recounted them to people, various people, including Norman. I think this is the factor on which he predicated his insistence that I start the book. They have always said that I told a great story, whatever that means, whether I was telling jokes or things that have happened to me, and so forth. That’s where it started.
TP: You set the table very well in your various anecdotes. You have a very firm sense of scene and place and drama.
PETERSON: I’m not really aware of that. It’s just the way I saw it.
TP: What’s also interesting is your command of the voices of the other musicians. The way you capture Lester Young or Roy Eldridge or Coleman Hawkins or Ella Fitzgerald or Ben Webster and on down, even those to whom you devoted only a paragraph or two. Did you just conjure them up in the process of writing? Did they come from stories you had told before? Do some of these stories reflect the type of stories Norman Granz would have been thinking about when he suggested you write the autobiography.
PETERSON: Well, it’s really based on the effect that these people had on me when I met them, and the way they reacted when certain things happened. You’re referring to Lester Young. We roomed together for a while, for instance, and I got to know a lot of his habits. The same with Flip Phillips, and Bill Harris.
TP: People I knew 20 years ago, I can’t necessarily remember the nuances of their syntax and the way they spoke unless I had it on a tape.
PETERSON: The reason for that is because I had a great admiration for the way people put things in context. I always insisted that Lester Young had a language of his own; the way he would talk to people. I admired this, because it was something very, very special to Lester, and it’s just the way it affected me.
TP: Do you feel that’s the case for all the musicians you profiled in the book?
PETERSON: I think so, yes. Because don’t forget, I was the new face among them, the new kid on the block, and everything that happened around me sort of saturated me, and I took it all in. It had a profound effect on me.
TP: So there’s a sense in which the spoken voice of the musician reflects their musical voice.
PETERSON: I think so.
TP: Secondly, you wrote about training yourself to listen in that manner, and that being analogous to the process of playing as well.
PETERSON: Well, I had to do that because I was accompanying a lot of these people on the jam sessions in the rhythm sections. I always preach that to my students whenever I hold a seminar. I tell them to be sure to listen to the soloists, and don’t think you’re a soloist against another soloist.
TP: Artists aren’t always articulate about the creative process, and the process of accumulating vocabulary and technique and information. You’re an exception. Your passages on the way you trained yourself, what you were looking for, just your entire approach, are unique in the literature of jazz. Is this something that reflects your personality over the years, or was describing it something you had to think about and work on?
PETERSON: I tried to write the same way we talk musically. I tried to write it as ad-lib as possible. Because I felt that if I stopped and conjured up, or tried to beautify or whatever you want to call it…various phrases and things… I just felt that if I spoke honestly about what had happened and what people said… I tried to be very careful to not add anything to what people had said to me or done to me. In other words, I didn’t want any of my personality to come through in what people were saying and doing to and with me.
TP: Are you satisfied that you did that?
PETERSON: I feel honestly that I did, yes.
TP: Were you writing in longhand? Were you typing?
PETERSON: I started out with the famous microphone and tape, which I didn’t like, in a certain way, because I found that I started to edit a lot of things when I played them back. I didn’t like that. I wanted it to be as improvisational as possible.
TP: A lot of people in your position use the tape recorder because they feel that speaking the story to the tape recorder more will come out and the inhibitions won’t take hold. It sounds like it was the opposite for you.
PETERSON: It was the opposite. Then I transferred it at the beginning of the computer age. I had a little Radio Shack computer, and I started writing on that. But I’m not the world’s greatest typist. I gave that style up years ago.
TP: You wrote longhand after that.
PETERSON: I wrote longhand. Then finally, I was very fortunate not having Richard, because he looked over a lot of those things and questioned a lot of the things, but fortunately, my wife Kelly is a wonderful typist, and sat there dedicatedly, hour after hour, while I rambled on.
TP: So you would talk and she would type as you were talking. You dictated to her.
TP: So much of this book is dictated to your wife.
PETERSON: An awful lot of it.
TP: Who I guess would be the person you could talk most comfortably to.
PETERSON: Right, because she never questioned anything and she never stopped the flow at any point. As I recall it, she never had to say, “Wait a minute, I missed this.” She’s that good a typist, which is lucky for me.
TP: When you first met Richard Elliott, how much of the material that is in the autobiography was written, do you think?
PETERSON: I think perhaps almost half of it.
TP: Was it chronological or different spots of the book?
PETERSON: I would think it was a little jagged. He put it in the context, insofar as indexing it in the proper way.
TP: But the first things you wrote were about your formative years.
PETERSON: Yes, and then I jumped around. Because when that became a little mundane to listen to myself talk, I stopped to think about different things. As I mentioned different people, that meant I would jump to a different era, a different part of my life. So Richard put that all into the right context.
TP: Have you read other jazz autobiographies and biographies?
PETERSON: Definitely not. One good thing is… I’m glad I didn’t, because they didn’t influence me. Some of the people I admired and loved so much, such as Bill Basie and Duke, I didn’t want to be influenced by. I wanted it to come out pure, the way it should have been.
TP: It’s closer in some ways to Dizzy Gillespie’s autobiography.
PETERSON: Yes, I’d like to read it. I’m trying to get hold of it.
TP: So the chronology is: Norman Granz makes the suggestion, you start writing…
PETERSON: Then I tired, and I put it away for a while.
TP: And at that point, you had maybe half of it.
PETERSON: Less than that. I picked it up two or three times, and then finally Richard Palmer entered the picture.
TP: He enters the picture, goes over the material, makes suggestions for directions you might go in, for how to organize things you’ve already done…
PETERSON: And things and people that he thought I perhaps had forgotten to write about or that he thought people might be interested in hearing my views on.
TP: Who were some of those people? What were some of those things?
PETERSON: I can’t remember.
TP: Then you resume writing and put the book together.
TP: I love the poems you wrote. Did you write them in the process of writing the book, or were they things you’d done otherwise?
PETERSON: I did them separately. I had a cottage up in the Halliburton Highlands here in Ontario, and I was sitting around with my computer, and I was thinking about people, and for some reason, I said to my wife, Kelly, “I think I should write something about them.” She said, “that’s a good idea.” Then I was kibitzing around, I started thinking about the rhythmic things about these people and the way they thought and played, and I decided that I would take a shot at writing a few verses about these various people. I don’t know how many I wrote…God knows how many I wrote in over a year. But I came back from the cottage, and I showed them to various people, and they were quite enthralled with what I had written. They said, “You should publish those.” The best thing that happened that I remember is a poem I wrote for Ella, which was read at her tribute in New York by Lena Horne — and what a reading she gave it. It was something. And I was really moved by that. But I don’t consider myself a poet by any means. I never pursued that.
TP: Even formally they’re beautiful forms, and they’re quite cogent. It’s not just stylistic; they really say something about their subjects. Have you read the book since publication?
PETERSON: No, I haven’t.
TP: Were you actively involved in proofing the book and in the final galleys and so forth?
PETERSON: No. I left that to Richard.
TP: What I’m leading to is, we’re saying that the notion that the spoken voice of the musician runs in a tone parallel to their instrumental voice. Do you feel that your authorial voice in this book is an analog to your musical voice and the imperatives that inform it?
PETERSON: I would think so. As I always say, “As you think, so you play.”
TP: How much did you delete from the book?
PETERSON: I don’t think there was a lot deleted. Richard didn’t take that kind of liberty. He would ask me if I thought that I had written enough about someone, or did I clarify the subject well enough. Or did I cover a certain period well enough. That’s the kind of thing he was doing.
TP: So he functioned on several levels. As a fan of your music, obviously. As someone who was more than a fan, but an extremely informed observer and perhaps scholar of your life in music. And as a skilled professional writer and editor who could polish the book into a form that would meet your standards of professionalism.
PETERSON: Well, I trusted Richard, because first of all, I had read various things he had written before — reviews and so forth. And as I said, he wrote a book on me, and I found it to be very direct and honest. So I didn’t hesitate to ask him when Norman suggested him.
TP: Are you as critical of yourself musically as you sometimes portray yourself to be in the book, on various minor points of detail and so on? In the book, your confidence in your ability, and assuredness and acceptance of your ability shines through all the way, and so does your capacity for self-criticism. It’s an interesting dynamic, and honestly reflected in the book.
PETERSON: Well, I hope so. I think that comes from working with other people rather than being a total solo artist. When you work with people, I have to criticize what my group does. But by the same token, I have to criticize what I am doing that’s causing them to do certain things. I think that’s what this arises from.
I hope you enjoyed the book. I’m going to get around to reading it as soon as I get the time!
TP: Do you listen to your own records back?
PETERSON: No, I don’t. I listen to them in the studio, but I don’t sit at home and play my own records. I don’t have that kind of ego. [LAUGHS]
TP: You were there and did it, so there it is.
PETERSON: That’s excuse enough, I guess.
TP: Do you listen back to the sideman things you did?
PETERSON: Oh, I listen to those. Because I listen to the other people, like Dizzy and Ella and Roy Eldridge and Stan Getz and so forth.
TP: You didn’t recount your sessions with Louis Armstrong.
PETERSON: They were wonderful. He was a complete comedian during all those sessions. He kept us in stitches. Including Ella. Sometimes we had to do second and third takes because was doing his comedic act. After they sang, and I had to play something, sometimes he’d yell “Yeah!” or whatever, and it didn’t bother him that they were doing a take. The one thing I tried to do was to follow every nuance that he put into his singing. It wasn’t easy to accompany him because he took all kinds of risks vocally, which other singers would not.
TP: You write humorously and lovingly of Coleman Hawkins, who legendarily stayed au courant with everything that was happening, including Thelonious Monk. You don’t mention Monk in the book. What was your attitude towards his playing?
PETERSON: I didn’t have an attitude towards his playing. I didn’t admire his playing. I admired his compositions. Look at it realistically. If you talk about pianists, and you say Thelonious Monk, would you say Art Tatum in the same voice, or Hank Jones or Teddy Wilson? There’s a certain understanding or rapport that you gain with the piano…I think. This is my own selfish opinion. Horowitz had it, obviously. So did Teddy Wilson. So did Bill Evans and Hank Jones. But I don’t feel pianistically that Thelonious Monk had it. That’s one reason why he’s not in the book. My mother always said if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything!
TP: Are you as self-critical as you portray your character to be?
PETERSON: I hope so. I think that comes from working with other people rather than being a total solo artist. I have to criticize what my group does. But by the same token, I have to criticize what I do that causes them to do certain things.
TP: Do you feel that your authorial voice is an analog to your musical voice and the imperatives that inform it?
PETERSON: I would think so. As I always say, “As you think, so you play.”
- * * * *
Oscar Peterson Big 4 (Live In Japan) – Liner Notes:
“A jazz phrase to me can’t be a jazz phrase without a certain type of blues feeling to it. If someone tries to play the blues, that’s the quickest way of knowing where they’re at jazz-wise, in my book. I have seen so-called prolific players humbled by the simplest of players who could play the blues… I’m not ashamed of the blues. The blues is a definitive part of jazz history and of my playing, and I want it to stay that way. I don’t want it to ever change, because if it does, then it throws me in with the classical end, and that’s not what I’m doing.” – Oscar Peterson, “Contemporary Keyboard” (December 1980)
Oscar Peterson offered these thoughts a year before the Tokyo concert that is “The Oscar Peterson Big 4 In Japan,” and the listener would do well to recall them while listening to the deftly paced program documented herein. It’s a particularly welcome addition to the meta-virtuoso’s vast discography; addressing repertoire that represents an aesthetic autobiography on a fine Bosendorfer before a tuned-in audience, Peterson — then 56 — is at the top of his game.
You could say the same for Peterson’s cohorts. Guitarist Joe Pass and bassist Niels-Henning Orsted-Pedersen, each a world-class poll-winner of long standing in 1982, had worked with Peterson in a variety of contexts since 1973 (see “The Good Life” [OJCCD-627-2 and “The Trio” [OJCCD-992-2], among others). Collective improvisers par excellence, they operate at a stunning level of interaction with the maestro, who faces no barriers to the execution of any idea he thinks of. Pentium-speed thinkers, they match Peterson’s breathtaking velocities, pristine articulation, and intensely swinging beat; they anticipate the long, clear phrases (think Art Tatum’s chops crossed with Charlie Parker’s vocabulary), augment the fat, beautiful voicings, answer the intricate harmonic twists and turns with inventions of their own devising. Drummer Martin Drew — who with Pedersen remains a vital member of Peterson’s current units — keeps immaculate time and remains keenly focused on dynamics.
Peterson, Pass and Pedersen comprise an immensely resilient, fluid equilateral triangle; their interplay reminds us that to whatever degree Peterson’s unlimited technique conjures Tatum, who was his idol in formative years, his overriding imperatives are orchestral, and have been since his years as a teen prodigy in Montreal, when he devoured recordings by Nat Cole’s popular piano-guitar-bass trio. “I was trying to build what I thought was the world’s biggest trio,” he told Contemporary Keyboard. “Within that context I was playing whatever kind of piano I played.”
Peterson recently addressed the Cole effect in a missive on his website about the “The Nat Cole Trio” (Capitol), in the process unveiling the thought process that undergirds his efflorescent locutions.
“I consider this album, by itself, to be a complete musical thesaurus for any aspiring jazz pianist,” he wrote. “Consider Nat’s rendition of his ‘Easy Listening Blues.’ The performance is simple and direct, yet in it Nat puts together all of the components that, to my way of thinking, are necessary to be able to play the blues. First and foremost, his distinctive yet soulful delivery of the melodic line sets the tone for the whole performance. His distinctly articulated touch and time, as he sets out and releases his phrases, serves to tell a story that he wants his audience to hear. I think it’s important to take notes of the restraint of the performance. No one instrument intrudes on the other, but rather serves to enhance Nat’s lines. The time quotient throughout is, to my way of thinking, exact, low-key, believable and moving. There is a great lesson to be learned here, and that is that shared effort is the most important component in trio playing.”
That said, he IS Oscar Peterson, and Tatumesque virtuosity is the watchword on the pair of solo turns that begin the proceedings. Peterson states the iconic melody of Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” at a graceful rubato tempo, then embarks on a succession of variations that deploy tension-and-release, building from legato melodies to arpeggiated crescendos in the archetypal Tatum manner. Then he medleys Michel Legrand’s “Watch What Happens” with Bill Evans’ “Waltz For Debby,” moving in and out of stride, walking the tenths in the graceful manner of Teddy Wilson, articulating the surging phrases with stunning clarity.
The leader steps aside for Joe Pass, “the impresario of the guitar,” for an elegant a cappella turn on “Easy Living.” There follows a ferocious Pass-Pedersen duo on Denzil Best’s “Move”; Pass has the opening salvo over Pedersen’s fleet bass lines, NHOP takes a frighteningly facile solo over Pass comp, and they launch a series of exchanges on which each reads each other’s mind.
Peterson returns, and brings the audience to church with a stately reading of his composition “Hymn To Freedom,” then transitions to his early ’80s opus “The Fallen Warrior,” dedicated to Nelson Mandela, still a prisoner in 1982. The quartet states a slow-medium bounce, stoking smoldering flames. After a guitar solo, Peterson ratchets up the intensity, climaxes, then winds down the sermon.
Peterson constructs an abstract intro to “Sweet Lorraine,” paying homage to Cole and Wilson. Once Pass and Pedersen enter, the dialogue is co-equal, Pass and Peterson switching off interchangeably as the lead voice.
The first set ends with a quartet performance of Walter Donaldson’s “You Look Good To Me,” a Peterson staple. Drew tips on the brushes over an NHOP two-beat, NHOP solos, Pass solos succinctly over NHOP’s brisk walk as Drew switches to sticks, then the pianist builds a characteristic force-of-nature statement, referencing the structure of Coleman Hawkins’ classic solo on “The Man I Love” from 1943.
Peterson opens the second set with a rollicking “Now’s The Time,” the Charlie Parker blues, setting up an irresistible good-time house party feeling. All members say their piece. After a stirring Pedersen solo reading of “Future Child,” the rhythm section states a supersonic tempo on “Mississuga Rattler,” a fire-breathing bop-blues that features an extended Peterson-Pass call and response.
The bassist and Peterson get a kalimba-like feeling on the gentle savannahs-of-Africa vamp that comprises the extended introduction to “Nigerian Marketplace,” an original with a 12/8 Ahmad Jamal feeling that Peterson had recorded seven months previous for Pablo.
The “Emily”-“Tenderly” medley opens with a cappella turns by piano and guitar on the Johnny Mandel ballad staple; Peterson hews gently to the melody, Pass improvises coruscating inventions, then they create melodic variations to match the innocence of the song’s subject, concluding with a seamless segue into “Tenderly,” whose sweet theme the quartet takes out at a medium-slow bounce.
Peterson recorded “Night Child” — an original with a rock-the-cradle gospel feeling — in 1979 on electric piano; Pass postulates delicately parsed high notes to Peterson’s light, lush treble in the Bosendorfer for a more layered, textured iteration of the effect. Then Peterson launches another rolling solo of inexorable momentum, quoting “Moose The Mooche” along the way, before solo turns by Pass, another “how-did-he-do-that?” statement by Pedersen, and a last word from the boss.
The concert ends with Peterson’s “Cakewalk,” whose syncopations catapult the popular turn-of-the-century dance into the bebop era. All have their say, the audience roars, and another of Peterson’s thousands of concerts is history.
Two decades later, we can revel in Peterson at the peak of his powers, as did a talented teenage aspirant from Mississippi named Mulgrew Miller when he heard Peterson perform around 1970 on “The Joey Bishop Show.” “I just flipped,” Miller related in 1994. “Here was Black music being played at a very high level of sophistication. That motivated me. I could study Classical Music and all of that, but I was never MOTIVATED to do that. But when I heard Oscar Peterson, I was motivated to master the piano.”
The Oscar Peterson Big Four in Japan” will stand among the piano titan’s strongest recordings; it contains the kind of playing that inspired Miller and countless other young keyboard talents to devote their energies to jazz.