In the new documentary Oscar Peterson: Black + White, the late jazz pianist comments on the significance of his Companion of the Order of Canada honour in 1984, saying that the country he lived in recognized, “to some degree,” what he was trying to do.
To some degree.
With the film, which makes its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 12, Canadian documentarian Barry Avrich addresses the relative lack of recognition for the jazz pianist generally considered to be the greatest of his generation, while simultaneously cementing his legacy as such. In the documentary, Piano Man authority Billy Joel says Peterson “reinvented the piano,” and that if you don’t know about his playing, “there’s a missing link in your appreciation of music.”
The Montreal-born Peterson, who died in 2007 at the age of 82, is having something of a moment. In February, Historica Canada devoted one of its Heritage Minutes to him. Last week, Toronto’s JAZZ.FM91 launched a new specialty stream dedicated to Peterson’s music. And, on Thursday, the Royal Conservatory of Music announced that its community school in Toronto – formerly known as the Royal Conservatory School – has been renamed the Oscar Peterson School of Music.
So, Canada is sweet on the Canadiana Suite composer. But why now? Yes, Peterson has been honoured in the past – he won the international Glenn Gould Prize in 1993, was named a Honorary Fellow of the Royal Conservatory in 2010 and held honorary degrees from at least 10 Canadian universities – but what’s behind the rush of love in 2021?
For director Avrich, who grew up in Montreal, the reasons which triggered the idea for his Peterson documentary are sentimental. Thinking of his mother, who is 93, Avrich considered the culture she gave him growing up. He remembered the faux-wood-paneled basement of his family home and the handful of albums he listened to as a child: Sarah Vaughan, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Etta James – and a spectacular pianist who could do wonders with the blues, in the key of C especially.
“Growing up in Montreal with an Oscar Peterson record in my hand, nobody said, ‘Hey, he’s from Montreal,’” Avrich, 58, said in an interview. “Canadians just don’t do that. I don’t know why there’s so much humility here.
“For some reason, Canadian artists have to come back to Canada with a suitcase full of press clippings. It’s not going to be a Juno. It needs to be from somewhere – or somebody – else.”
With that in mind, Avrich, a filmmaker more well-known in Hollywood than in Canada and whose work includes 2005′s The Last Mogul (about American talent agent and film studio executive Lew Wasserman), put luminaries Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, Branford Marsalis, Joel and others in front of the camera to assess Peterson’s greatness.
Not everyone believes Peterson’s reputation needs boosting. “When I was a young pianist in the 1960s and 70s, Oscar was held in the highest esteem by people of his generation, and subsequently was the great jazz pianist of the age,” said Peter Simon, long-time president and CEO of the Royal Conservatory. “I consider Oscar to be one of the greatest pianists, period, of the 20th century.”
Simon, a pianist himself, is certainly not alone in his opinion. Louis Armstrong called Peterson “the man with four hands,” while Count Basie said Peterson played “the best ivory box I’ve ever heard.”
Yet, Avrich didn’t think he’d be able to sell a documentary on Peterson. “I didn’t think there would be an audience for it,” he said. It was a surprise, then, that Randy Lennox, then the president of Bell Media, gave him an “immediate yes” on the pitch.
“Many of our own don’t even realize Oscar was born here,” Lennox said. “My sense is that when people see all of the major artists that revere Oscar, it will be very helpful in making the film popular.”
The film joins a crowded field of music documentaries at TIFF, including Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over, Triumph: Rock & Roll Machine and Jagged, about Canadian singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette. Oscar Peterson: Black + White isn’t even the most talked-about film about a jazz musician at TIFF: Penny Lane’s Listening to Kenny G looks at that wildly famous – and critically loathed – smooth-jazz saxophonist in the context of musical taste.
Perhaps that’s the reason why Peterson isn’t universally revered at home in Canada – maybe it all comes down to taste.
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