As far as I know, Oscar Peterson never attributed his lack of name recognition in Canada to racism. Even when a CBC interviewer claimed she understood his nickname “Osc The Gorilla” a lot better than his other nickname, “The Maharaja Of The Keyboard”, Peterson kept his cool.

Oh, sure, there are jazz festivals in his name up here, and scholarships too. But the main concert hall and recording studio at the CBC is named after Glenn Gould, not him. Peterson’s statue stands in Ottawa, not in Montreal where he was born. He doesn’t have a “historical society” like Guy Lombardo, who is mostly known for playing New Year’s Eve ditties and the version of “Auld Lang Syne” you usually hear when watching the ball drop in Times Square.

So perhaps it’s because Peterson was a quiet man by nature. Duke Ellington, who dubbed him “The Maharaja”, and Count Basie, whose laid-back style meshed so well with Peterson’s controlled approach, were much larger personalities. It’s also very true that Oscar Peterson was no innovator, preferring to respect the boundaries of jazz while wild men like Thelonious Monk were rampaging right over them.

But for all of his complexity and classical background, Peterson’s work is incredibly accessible. He is blindingly fast, but never overwhelming or grandiose. Much like his fellow Montrealer Norm MacDonald, he is constantly subverting the listener’s expectations, lulling them into a false sense of security and then surprising them by packing four or five beautifully timed notes into a single second. He is more interested in demonstrating what a piano is capable of, or using his classical training to transport you to a far off place. While Gould always seemed interested in building his own tortured artist legend- singing along as he played and writing treatises decrying concerts, and while Lombardo was a shameless panderer, Peterson loved performing and treated his audience with great respect, so long as they respected him in turn.

I can tell you all about Canada’s history, geography, and culture, or you can listen to his Canadiana Suite and experience the entire country for yourself in just over half an hour. The liveliness and hospitality of the Prairie provinces…..

The busyness of the Place St. Henri square in Montreal….

The affected coolness of Toronto…..

The affable and laid-back Wheatland, Saskatchewan…..

Or the melancholic, isolated, but still hopeful atmosphere of British Columbia.

Despite his Canadian moderation, it goes without saying that there is absolutely no place in Official Canadian Music for Oscar Peterson. There’s barely any room for jazz at all, and if you asked a Canadian who their favourite jazz musician was, they’d probably answer with Michael Buble.

Does it matter that Peterson was as good at playing the blues as he was with jazz? Not to Canadians, it doesn’t. Canadian blues involves David Wilcox fantasizing about rolling down the Mississippi on a riverboat in 1894 while out of his mind on every substance imaginable.

Well, no matter. Peterson, with his 8 Grammys, never really needed the acclaim of his fellow Canadians. Like Esi Edugyan, Oscar Peterson is another Canadian minority who enjoyed more success in a supposedly racist country than he ever could at home.

Next week we’ll continue with the Canadian Music origin story when we cover the prototype for all Canadian female solo artists to follow – Joni Mitchell.


Photo by Coastal Elite

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