April 11th, 2000 was the last time I had the honour and privilege to hear the great, great Oscar Peterson (1925-2007) play the piano. I had seen him play in Montreal back in the ’90’s and I had watched with much due respect as the elder statesman accepted an award of some sort at an afternoon ceremony in Gatineau, Quebec a few years after this concert. And though I should have seen him play once more at a show in Ottawa (one that he ended up cancelling due to health concerns) I’m happy that Oscar was able to play music as late in life as he did.
When Oscar Peterson was a teenager in Montreal he told his father he wanted to quit high school to practise and ultimately pursue a music career.
“I can’t let my kid drop out of school to become a jazz piano player,” the elder Peterson told his young son sternly.
“But I can let him drop out of school if he’s going to become the best jazz piano player in the world.”
I don’t know if those words were his inspiration, but Oscar took the prophecy and ran with it. His rapidfire two-handed lines wowed crowds when he was introduced to the world as a secret plant that was brought up on stage at Carnegie Hall in 1949 where he proceeded to set the jazz world on fire. Piles of Grammys and over 200 albums later Oscar Peterson was an unquestionable elder statesman of his genre. He was also pretty much my introduction to jazz, and for that I will always love him.
This concert was the debut of Oscar’s latest composition, a song cycle called Trail of Dreams: A Canadian Suite that featured pieces representing every province and territory. Oscar was accompanied by an excellent trio of jazz players and a couple of dozen string players. I was sitting in an area called ‘the choir’ in Toronto’s Roy Thompson Hall, cheap seats that saw me sitting right above and behind the great jazzman, only about fifteen feet away. The sound was pretty lousy up there but I was closer to the featured performer than anyone else in the room, and from my perch I could see his hands perfectly.
Oscar’s left hand hardly moved – victim of his stroke – but his fluttering right hand easily made up for it, cascading up and down the keyboard spitting out effortless lines of glory. The big man hummed and hawed aloud, giving voice to his inner improvisor while five of his fingers instantly did his bidding. It was a great night of great music and I’m thrilled to have been there.
After the show the band bowed and left the stage and the pleased crowd started to file out of the theatre. Perhaps it was the opening of the doors to the street outside, I don’t know, but somehow a draught of air lifted the combo’s sheet music off of their music stands causing pages to fall scattered onto the stage. I joined the crowd that rushed forward and like many others I managed to nab a piece of music for a souvenir. Just then the guitar player and drummer ran out from the wings. “Give it back, give it back!” they yelled, scrambling on their hands and knees collecting what pages were left. “We need that music for our recording session tomorrow!” they insisted.
I dutifully returned my souvenir to the stage (blast my good upbringing!). Most of the others did too, but I’m pretty sure a few people walked out with pages under their jackets, pretending not to hear the musician’s pleas to the contrary.
I should be so devious.