Oscar Peterson made the piano ‘sound like it had four hands’ — fellow music greats celebrate him in the film ‘Black + White’

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Most pianos have 88 keys. Oscar Peterson had a 97 – an extra extra octave at the end of the bass.

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You can hear each one of them in the new documentary “Oscar Peterson: Black and White.” The film, from director Barry Avrich, recently screened at the Toronto International Film Festival to a standing ovation and had its television premiere on Crave Friday.

The biopic is packed with praise from jazz and pop legends as only Peterson could reach.


“Whatever he threw for just five seconds, I’d cut my hand off to be able to do it,” says Billy Joel, the unabashed fan in the film.

“Courageous. Nothing scares him,” says Quincy Jones. “He’ll try anything.”

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Herbie Hancock, Stephen Colbert bandleader John Battist, Branford Marsalis and many other musicians weigh in. So, via rare clip, jazz greats of the past including Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Count Basie and Duke Ellington.

Producer Mark Selby says that the filmmakers have archived and stitched together film and radio interviews from the 1940s “until the never-before-seen interviews that Oscar shot for a postponed BBC project shortly before his death.” killed.” As such, “the film is pretty much the Oscars that presents us with the story of his life in his words.”

The jazz giant died at his home in Mississauga in 2007, at 82. He was born in the Little Burgundy neighborhood of Montreal in 1925. His father Daniel, a West Indian immigrant, worked as a porter for the Canadian Pacific Railway.

The family didn’t have much, but they did have a piano, and playing musical instruments was encouraged at home. When an attack of tuberculosis blew the young Peterson’s trumpet, he went to the piano at seven. His older sister Daisy got him started on the classics, but ragtime and boogie-woogie rhythms took the lead.

By the time he was nine years old, under the tutelage of Hungarian-born pianist Paul de Marqui, Peterson had serious jazz chops.

He dropped out of school in his teens and joined the orchestra, playing weekly radio shows. He began recording as part of the trio of Victor Records. Eventually, he made over 200 recordings, won seven Grammys as well as a lifetime achievement award from the Recording Academy.

Batiste cherished Peterson’s recordings of “Au Préve” and “Scrapple from the Apple”.

“I remember listening to those two tracks over and over again,” he says in the film. “And I was just wondering how he could make the piano sound like he had four hands.”

Jazz greats like Ellington gained attention in the ’40s.

“I’ll never forget it,” Peterson says of the time, who stood in the wings asking if he had any ideas for playing solo piano.

Think about it, urged the Duke. “People sometimes enjoy their caviar without eggs and onions.”

Impresario Norman Granz, who also directed Fitzgerald’s career, happened to catch Peterson’s live broadcast on a cab radio on his way to Montreal airport. “Turn back and take me to that club!” Granz commanded.

Shortly after, Granz, who would manage most of Peterson’s career, replaced the pianist at Carnegie Hall.

The documentary includes high and low notes. Peterson, like all Black entertainers of the time, faced racism and segregation, although Granz challenged both fearlessly and tirelessly. There were health challenges and three unsuccessful marriages and several lonely years down the road.

Although this film is also a love story. Kelly Peterson came along at just the right time. Barely a college grad, she heard Peterson perform across the lake from Toronto in her hometown of Rochester, NY. Five years later, in 1981, she was at a Florida restaurant at night waiting for a struggling actress. She wanted to see the Peterson trio at a local Sarasota venue, but her manager refused to give her a night’s rest.

Peterson, who had never eaten before the performance, walked into her dining room and ordered the late-night menu to be closed.

“And I said, ‘He’s really cute,'” Peterson recounts in the documentary. “There was an openness about him that I loved.”

“If I had gone to the concert,” Kelly told Starr, “I would never have met her.”

Peterson gave her a business card with her phone number written on it. “And he said, ‘If you want to come to my concert in New York this summer, gather me up and come as my guest.'” Kelly thought the gesture was catchy and sweet, “but I never did it. Wouldn’t have believed honestly except he kept calling the restaurant.”

Kelly moved to New York and moved to Peterson’s Mississauga home in 1986. The couple had a daughter, Celine.

“I was happy,” says Oscar in Doc. “I’m a sucker for kids.” He had seven in total.

This was the last family run. Kelly and Celine traveled the world with him. He wrote and performed compositions for both.

Then, in May 1993, Peterson suffered a stroke. This robbed him of a lot of his dexterity in his left hand and, for a while, he thought he had recovered.

“The Oscars always said, ‘If I can’t play the way I expect I’m not going to go out on stage,'” Kelly said.

Musician friend David Young carried his bass to Oscar’s house and encouraged him to keep playing. A little over a year later, he returned to a recording studio with Itzhak Perlman.

“I saw Brother Oscar in Blue Note in New York, right after,” recalls Cornell West, the political activist in the film. “And it looked like it was working three hands.”

Kelly was accompanied by an Oscar for all the accolades of late: Honorary Degree, Order of Canada Companion. Other accolades followed his death in 2007, including a public school named after him in Staffville, Ont., in 2009.

Now, he feels, “it’s very important for me to introduce people to Oscar’s work as a musician.” Those works include an entire suite called “Africa” ​​and a composition dedicated to Nelson Mandela. “It’s so innovative that it’s performed in its entirety,” said Kelly, who plans such recordings.

His second thought: record these and other works performed by today’s greatest pianists on Oscar’s piano.

Handcrafted in Vienna, the nine-and-a-half-foot-long Bosendorfer Imperial 290 with its 97 keys was moved out of Petersen’s custom-built Mississauga home in 2015. Kelly has already released two CDs worth recording.

“It’s in great condition,” she says of the piano, “but it needs to be played.”

Hear it in “Oscar Peterson: Black and White” on Friday.

Bill Brooks is a freelance TV writer. follow him on twitter @billbrookstv
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