Oscar Peterson

First Contact

At one juncture in my ever changing working experience, I was the Canadian product specialist for Korg & Fostex recording equipment. At one point I had one of every product that Korg & Fostex ever made in my studio; from their cool Korg synthesizers to their mixers that synchronized with big Fostex multitrack reel to reel tape machines, and it was my job to completely learn these devices inside out, using sparse manuals roughly translated from Japanese. So, when ever customers had really technical questions (or couldn’t fathom the manual), the equipment distributors would slip them my number…

One day the phone rang as usual (this was before “smart phones” and Call Display), and so I dutifully answered;

SG: Hello ?
Caller: Hi, Scott ?
SG: Yes…
Caller: This is Oscar Peterson
SG: No way…
(awkward silence)
SG: Len, is that you ? Len I can tell it’s you…
(awkward silence, adrenaline rush)
SG: (quietly) Is this really Oscar Peterson ?
Caller: As far as I know…
SG: (meltdown) Oh man… how did you get my number ? I mean, why are you calling me ? Uhhh….(!)
OP: Do you know about the Korg WaveStation ?
SG: Oh… Right ! Yeah, sure I do !… (I can do that !)  What would you like to know ?

We talked for a few hours before he said;

OP: Maybe you should just come over here ?
SG: Can I get there with Transit ?
OP: I’ll just send my driver – you good in the next hour ?

And thus began my “Oscar Sessions”… which happened randomly over the next several years…

In the beginning, I would go to his home to show something technical that was impossible to show over the phone, and before I knew it, it was 2:00 AM, and I had to work the next day… we just drank coffees and sodas through the night and I’d fly home down the empty highways just buzzing from all the stories of Ella, Basie, Nat Cole, you name it… guys who until then were just recordings and iconic album art to me, and every night on leaving, I would shake the hand of the one who had touched their hands… and the very hands that played all those piano recordings I’ve listened to all these years… I don’t know how I could better explain this… it’s just so cool to me

Eventually our meetings evolved to a set pattern where he would teach me piano lessons for the first hour, I would teach him technology for the second hour, and then we would just talk about everything under the sun, for the rest of the night… I would probably remember it all as some kind of fantastical dream if he had not allowed me to record many of my piano lessons, which I have since digitized and I listen to from time to time… they’re not “easy listening”…

On Racism

On what might have been my second or third visit to Oscar’s home, Oscar seemed aggravated… Something must have happened earlier in the day and he was just kind of on edge. Somehow or other, the topic of that evening quickly became racism – not my first choice of topics…

I just sat there listening without interrupting as he told me stories of how ‘white’ people treated Ella Fitzgerald, as just one example, when they were on tour together. He told me one very specific story of his own, which I will repeat here;

Oscar was playing with his trio in a club somewhere, and a well dressed gentleman somehow managed to always occupy the same table by the piano side of the stage each and every night of this particular week. Night after night this man would appear and spend the entire evening moving to the music and so Oscar started to play specifically for him, seeing as this man was so obviously enjoying his music. After the week was up and they had shared this special rapport for the entire time, Oscar took it upon himself to come down from the stage and say hello, basically to thank him for being so supportive, but when Oscar extended his hand in friendship, the man just looked annoyed and said; “look, you’re good piano player and all, but I could never shakes the hand of a nigger”… full stop.

Oscar told me that in that moment he was at a complete loss as to what to do next – a rarity. His first impulse was to deck him, but he didn’t want to hurt his hands, so he controlled himself and just walked away, but of course, he never forgot it and it was obvious to me that his pain was very much still the same now as it was in that moment back then.

I was silent for a while and I couldn’t think of anything positive to respond. Eventually, if just because I wanted to break the awkward silence, I said the first thing that came into my head; “do you not think it’s getting better now than the way it used to be” ?

What followed was completely unexpected… Oscar swooped toward me in an instant and almost grabbed me up by the collar, but in the same sudden moment, stopped… instead he came within a few inches of my face and in a very low, menacing growl told me; “don’t you ever, EVER tell a ‘black’ man ‘things are getting better’ – you have NO idea what you’re talking about – do you understand ? NO idea”. He was absolutely livid, we were locked eyeball to eyeball, and he was a big guy…

I was pretty shaken up… but instead of retreating and apologizing, for some reason I stood my ground; I looked him right back and told him with no uncertainty; “you’re looking at a guy who was raised by someone who adores you for your music. You would never, ever be treated that way by my father, and by his example, I could be never be any different either… I have listened to your records since I was a little kid and it never even occurs to me to think about skin colors as anything but that; it’s just a shade of color. So from my point of view, the way I try to look at it, I just think things are maybe getting a little better ?… maybe a little ?”…

He didn’t say a word… he just continued to stare me down, but I didn’t blink, I just sat there and waited, eyes locked. Eventually his composure softened, he sat back in his chair and just said “ok… well that’s fine, that’s okay… that’s okay”… and everything between us changed in that moment. We never talked about anything like that ever again, and instead, it was all about the music and the latest technologies – straight joy – those were really good days…

The First Lesson

I spent many years practicing 12 bar blues in G… the most difficult part that I seemingly mastered, was to play a repeating “walking” bass line with my left-hand, while then being completely focused on improvising wildly with my right hand. For me, the coolest thing I had achieved was that I could totally forget about my left hand and focus entirely on doing acrobatics with my right hand… It kind of became my signature performance piece for piano, and I’d save that for my final number when I played regular gigs in the piano bars at night…

So the first time Oscar asked me to play for him, he said; “go ahead, show me what you can do” and of course, I gave him no less than both barrels… my best shot… right out of the chute…

I had been practicing earlier that day and so I was warmed up… I also had a lot of adrenaline going in, so in my mind I really nailed it. Big time. I don’t think I could possibly have played it any better… so I could imagine what was naturally coming next; like, how suitably impressed he was… <cough>

As was his pattern, he would graciously start with a polite complement, but then he would move straight to the tough questions… in my case he just asked like it was completely obvious; “so what is that going on with your left hand ? You’re just playing the same pattern over and over again… why aren’t you improvising with your left hand at the same time…” ?

The thing is; it had never occurred to me that was even possible… I mean, not really; it had taken me forever just to get the left-hand part down to the point where I could basically forget about it and focus on what cool things I wanted my right hand to do…

He must have seen my blank expression… he just sighed, and said, “here; move over and I’ll show you what I mean”… He started by playing my exact same 12 bar blues, in my same key, with my exact same left hand walking pattern, and then he took it to the next level, like I had never heard it before, let alone watched two hands play it right next to me… he just killed it, and yes, both of his hands were doing totally different things without a single repetitive pattern in either hand. I was just stunned at how effortless and flawless he played. Then he started playing it in different keys, moving through the circle of fifths… You can hear all the records you want, but until it is right there in your face; nothing else is remotely the same… it’s just not.

Before that day I used to think I really had something going on as a piano player, but after that day, it was totally obvious that I had barely begun. It was one of the best bad days of my life, and it changed me.

A Gift from Oscar

Oscar Peterson Tour Poster

Oscar Peterson Tour Poster:
Oscar Peterson, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, Joe Pass, in Montmartre.

Oscar gave me many gifts over the years, from synthesizers, to roses when my son Nathan was born, but the best gift was one he may not have been aware of… or maybe he was completely aware… I’ll never know.

When I was in high school, when ever anyone asked what I planned to do with my life, I would answer “Doctor”, which would quickly end any kind of concern. I was actually very sincere; I took all the prerequisite maths and sciences, I had the necessary marks, and to this day I am still fascinated by the medical profession, but by the time high school was over, music had taken over completely. I couldn’t help it; the music couldn’t be stopped.

There was a pivotal moment in the kitchen, when my father confronted me and demanded to know what my often vague plans were going to be, moving forward. I told him I had offers from three bands and that I planned to tour Canada with one of them. He basically ‘lost it’ and told me that I couldn’t possibly be making a worse mistake, that everything I would want to do in my future would be more difficult as a musician, than as a doctor. At first he forbade it, but wisely he eventually realized I was already gone…

In the years that followed, whenever I spoke to my father we didn’t have much of anything to talk about… I was always living in dives, barely making ends meet, I was skinny as a rail, and life on the road didn’t include many feel-good stories… so every time we met or spoke, he would always get in a “dig” somewhere in the conversation, of what a poor choice of career I had made for my life, because if I was going to be a piano player, I “needed to as good or better, than Oscar Peterson”… It became a tired pattern of cliché friction between father and son.

One year for reasons I can no longer remember, my father made a very rare visit back home to Toronto. He had one free day to spend with me and so my mother suggested that we go to a museum or something… I could only imagine how much fun that was going to be…

The day before our time together, I threw caution completely to the wind and phoned Oscar, to ask if I could bring my father over to meet him. I fully expected Oscar to tell me his schedule was always booked weeks in advance as it typically was, but instead, it was a two minute call… I didn’t explain anything, I just asked my question straight out, he paused for a moment, and all he said was, “can you be here by 2:00 ?” It was that easy.

The next day, I picked up my father at the hotel but instead of driving toward the museum, we were soon on the expressway where I explained the change in plan; that I was taking him to meet Oscar Peterson. It’s the first time I had ever seen him being nervous… He kept asking; “Are you sure this is okay ?”

Our visit didn’t last much more than an hour… Oscar was at his most gracious, he was relaxed and very kind to my father and soon put him at ease. It became completely obvious to my father that we were welcome there. When I asked; can I take Dad to the basement and show him the studio ? “Of course” ! so while Oscar remained upstairs, I took my father on a tour through his rooms where the walls were jammed with Downbeat Awards, gold records, keys to cities, world tour posters etc. etc… and then there was his Bosendorfer grand piano, and the very cool recording studio… my father hardly said a word, he just took it all in quietly and respectfully. Oscar and my father spoke together for a while and all too soon, it was time to go…

And Oscars gift ? To better understand that, you might want to read this, but from that day forward, never again did my father ever have a single critical word about my career choice to be a musician. That day, I was cleared to go.

Thank you Oscar…

Oscar Poster Detail

To Scott – With sincere thanks and appreciation. Oscar Peterson Jan. 1993