Duke Ellington once called Oscar Peterson “the maharaja of the keyboard” for his virtuosity and ability to play any style with apparent ease, a skill he first began to learn as a classically trained prodigy. Peterson was introduced to Bach and Beethoven by his musician father and big sister Daisy, after which he teased in rigorous finger exercises and received six hours of training a day by his teacher, the Hungarian pianist Paul de Marky. “I first really heard jazz somewhere between seven and 10 years old,” said the Canadian jazz major. “My older brother Fred, who was actually a better pianist than I was, started playing various new tunes – yes, they were at least new to me … Duke Ellington and Art Tatum, which scared me to death with his technique. “
Despite his own wonderful talent, Peterson found Tatum “annoying,” he told Count Basie in a 1980 interview. He responded to the fear by learning to play as Tatum, and like everyone else he admired while added his own melodic twists to standards and originals. As a 14-year-old, he won a national Canadian music competition and left school to become a professional musician.
He recorded his first album in 1945 at the age of 20. “Since his ‘discovery’ in 1947 by Norman Granz,” wrote International Musician in 2002, five years before the pianist’s death, “Peterson has amassed an incredible legacy from recorded work with Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Fred Astaire, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Parker, among countless other greats. “
In the video at the top of the post from Dick Cavett Show in 1979 Peterson demonstrates his elegant technique and demonstrates the “stylistic marks” of the great ones he admired and which others have heard expressed in his own style. He begins with his albatross, Tatum’s “stride piano,” a style that requires a lot of left-handed articulation and which, done right, can “put the rhythm section out of the market,” jokes Cavett. Peterson then shows “the two-fingered percussion of Nat Cole,” “lyrical octave work by Erroll Garner,” and double-bar melody lines, a very difficult two-handed maneuver.
It’s a dazzling lesson that in a few short minutes shows why Peterson became known for his “breathtaking virtuosity as a soloist,” as one biography notes. In the video above, producer and YouTube personality Rick Beato explains why he thinks Peterson played “The Greatest Solo Ever” in the 1974 edition of “Boogie Blues Study” further up. As David Funk, who posted the Cavett video on YouTube, puts it: “What more can you say?” To understand why Louis Armstrong called Peterson “the man with four hands,” we simply have to watch him play.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness