You can’t take the Canadiana out of Oscar Peterson, but you can leave out the Canadiana Suite.
A new Heritage Minute that celebrates the late jazz giant employs no Peterson recordings, nor does it use any of his own compositions or standards famously in his repertoire. Instead, a lively score composed by Peterson protégé Robi Botos accompanies the 60-second sprint through the pianist’s early life and career in Montreal.
The decision not to use something such as Oscar’s Boogie was based on practical as well as creative concerns, according to the head of Historica Canada, the organization that produces the Heritage spots.
“We have to consider what’s going to work musically in a space of a minute, with only a few select chords,” explains Anthony Wilson-Smith. “We’re a bit pressed for time.”
Inarguably. There’s no wiggle room when it comes to the Heritage Minute, a historically informative vignette precisely one clock-tick in length.
There’s also the matter of authenticity. Part of the new minute is dedicated to Peterson’s residency at Montreal’s Alberta Lounge in the late 1940s. Not wishing to be limited to a snippet of something Peterson would have played in that nascent period of his career, the creative team chose to use something broadly representative rather than something specific.
“While doing this score, I was trying to find musical colours by Oscar Peterson and his personality and story,” says Botos, a Juno-winning Hungarian-Canadian jazz pianist.
Copyright issues also played a role in the decision to go with a generic Peterson-like composition from Botos. Potential issues at play were the cost of using a Peterson recording and/or composition and the duration of the rights.
Rightsholders of intellectual properties often set a timeline on their use. If, after an agreed upon number of years, a new agreement cannot be reached, the music would no longer be authorized for further use.
“With those factors in mind, and with the promise of collaboration from Robi, we made a decision early on to take this route,” says Wilson-Smith.
It begins with Peterson’s father, a railway porter, having a piano delivered to the family’s apartment in the working-class Little Burgundy neighbourhood of Montreal. “Music would be our ticket out of poverty,” says the voiceover narrator, speaking as Peterson.
Providing Peterson’s voice is fellow jazz pianist Oliver Jones, a contemporary and friend. Portraying young Peterson on camera is Thompson T. Egbo-Egbo, a Toronto-based jazz pianist who bears some resemblance to Peterson.
“I tried to capture the brightness of his persona on the piano,” says Egbo-Egbo. “He was an exciting player.”
The filming took place in Toronto in the fall of 2019, with the folk, jazz and blues club Hugh’s Room as a stand-in for a smokey Alberta Lounge. Egbo-Egbo played for a couple of hours during the course of the filming, but because of technical issues, Boto’s playing was dubbed in later.
“While Thompson is a terrific pianist, he’s not as familiar as Robi is with the particular style and sound of Oscar,” says Wilson-Smith.
The early-career setting ruled out the possibility of using something particularly patriotic, such as Peterson’s Canadiana Suite or Blues For Big Scotia, both from the 1960s.
Originally produced from 1991 to 1995, Heritage Minutes occupy a unique space in Canadian culture. Television watchers from the era will remember the segment on basketball inventor James Naismith, complete with a scene-stealing gymnasium janitor who is curiously stingy with his peach baskets.
Uncomfortable issues were also sometimes presented in a less folksy style. One noteworthy spot featured a young Chinese Canadian risking his life to set a dangerous nitroglycerine charge while helping to build the Canadian Pacific Railway.
The Heritage Minutes were revived in 2012, with a particular focus on social issues. In 2016, a moving spot was dedicated to Chanie Wenjack, whose death sparked the first inquest into the treatment of Indigenous children in Canadian residential schools.
“That was a tough minute,” says Wilson-Smith. “People tend to remember the happiest Heritage Minutes, but there’s more to what we’re doing than the fun ones that are beloved.
“With Oscar Peterson, he’s not as well known to Canadians as he should be. And certainly, we like presenting a Black Canadian hitting such a level of achievement on the world stage.”
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