If you are young, shy and eager to see your talent as a budding pianist validated by someone you respect and admire, then having jazz legend Oscar Peterson be the one who identifies your rising star has to count as a most auspicious start to a brilliant career, if not a dream come true.
This, precisely, is what happened to Oliver Jones when he was growing up in Montreal in the 1940s.
Born into a family which placed a high value on music (his father, an immigrant from Barbados, was an amateur singer with a passion for Bach cantatas), Jones was fortunate to grow up in the same Little Burgundy neighbourhood as Peterson and his family, ensuring him several close encounters of the genius kind with Canada’s pre-eminent jazz musician.
“My parents moved houses so we could be even closer to them,” recalls Jones, an award-winning musician, composer and arranger who started playing the piano when he was 3, performing his first concert at his parents’ church at 5.
“Oscar Peterson’s sister, Daisy Peterson Sweeney, was a well-known piano teacher at that time and my mother wanted me to study with her because she was the best.”
Jones was at the Petersons’ house two to three times a week, eventually forming a close friendship with Oscar’s older brother, Fred, and frequently bumping into Oscar himself on his visits home from New York where the pianist, called the Maharaja of the Keyboard by Duke Ellington, was playing for luminaries such as Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie.
“Oscar Peterson encouraged me,” says Jones, whom Canada Post has recently honoured by creating a stamp in his honour. “You couldn’t get any better than that, and it’s because of him that I became the musician I did.”
Practice, as he learned from the Peterson siblings, makes perfect, and not a day goes by without Jones running his expert hands over the keys, even now at 78.
Still touring and playing to packed houses, Canada’s master of the jazz piano now that Oscar is gone (he died in 2007), Jones performs between 60 and 65 concerts a year, including numerous charity benefits and the Montreal Chamber Music Festival where he has served as artistic director of jazz.
His repertoire consists of jazz standards as well as his own compositions, of which he has created more than 150 over the past 20 years for his label, Justin Time Records.
Creating music, as opposed to interpreting it, requires a different set of creative muscles.
“Jazz is improvisation, which itself is highly creative. There’s a melody line there and it’s like a skeleton, and every single night you may play the same tune but it will always inspire you to take a different approach. Every night you are looking for something, your own way through the music,” Jones explains. “But composing is different. It’s a combination of discipline and inspiration. When I create a song I have to have an image in front of me, in my mind’s eye, and often it’s of a sweet, innocent child which gives me a good feeling, and from that feeling I create a song.”
With the years, Jones says that composing is getting easier to do, often coming to him unbidden.
“Sometimes tunes come to me in the middle of the night, and I’ve learned to keep manuscript paper close by so that if an idea comes to me I’ll jump up out of bed and write it down right away,” he says. “One day I was riding the subway and a tune came to me, and I don’t know what inspired it. It just happened.”
Call them trade secrets, or words of wisdom. These secrets, which the affable musician gives so freely, sharing them especially with young people in his capacity as a music teacher at McGill University in Montreal and Laurentian University in Sudbury, is what keeps Jones as vibrant as he is.
The energy of community is in his veins, inspiring him still.
“I believe in giving back,” asserts Jones. “If I can instill in youngsters a similar passion for music, then I feel I have done what I was born to do. Music is a gift. It enriches lives. At least it has mine, and to Oscar Peterson I am eternally grateful.”