Oscar Emmanuel Peterson was born in Montreal on 25 August 1925, the fourth of 5 children, to Olivia and Daniel Peterson. His father, an immigrant from the West Indies, was an ardent music lover who insisted that Oscar should have every possible musical opportunity.
At first Peterson learned both piano and trumpet and if it hadn’t been for a serious bout of tuberculosis, he might have become one of the world’s greatest Jazz trumpeters. Instead he gave up the trumpet to concentrate on the piano. Peterson was classically trained at the Montreal Conservatory and also studied with Lou Hopper and Paul deMarky, the Hungarian classical pianist.
The Influence of Benny Goodman
As a young boy Peterson admired Benny Goodman. After hearing Goodman on the radio he decided to change his style. Jazz became his life. He soon found himself in great demand playing for Canadian radio stations and dance orchestras including the Johnny Holmes Orchestra, one of Canada’s most popular bands. In 1949 Peterson received international acclaim when he toured with bassist Ray Brown in Jazz at the Philharmonic groups.
A Prolific Recording Career for the Giant of Jazz
His first recording, at the age of 19, was I Got Rhythm arranged in boogie-woogie style. Duke Ellington called him the “maharajah of the keyboard”. Others called him the “Giant of Jazz” or the “Brown Bomber of Boogie-Woogie”, a nickname that reflected his similarity in build to the boxer Joe Louis. Peterson stood 6’3″ tall and weighed 250 pounds!
Peterson was famous for being able to play in every known jazz style, and some would even say, unknown styles as well. During his long recording career he recorded more than 200 albums.
He drew on the music of many American songwriters always seeking new ways to present their music. He accompanied almost every famous name including Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Billie Holliday, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Stan Getz.
Peterson was no stranger to royalty and was frequently invited to perform for heads of state, including Queen Elizabeth II and President Richard Nixon. He frequently acted as a musical ambassador for the Canadian government during his many tours of Europe, the Far East, Russia, Africa and South America.