January 2008

A Tribute to Oscar Peterson
Born: August 15, 1925 Montréal
Died: December 23, 2007 Mississauga
January 12, 2008 Roy Thomson Hall Toronto
Oscar Peterson – Simply The Best
by Laila Boulos
By 12:00 p.m., the line that had begun at 5:00 a.m. for the free tribute concert to Oscar Peterson was already looping along the west side of Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall. Although it was cold, everyone was jovial and the neighbourly spirit of the concert-going hopefuls would have made Oscar Peterson (a staunch humanitarian) smile with pride.

The only things putting a dent in the long wait was the intermittent hail, rain and wind and an enterprising Bob Rae, who upon witnessing the captive hoards, swiftly began working the crowd and cameras for an early political campaign push. There was also an entrepreneurial, spunky country-singing busker, television camera crews and coffee trucks to entertain and distract the people waiting in line. Actually, the forces of nature dropping down on the crowds were probably the product of OP (as he is referred to fondly by his friends) lightly teasing from above.

For those who were unable to attend (or get into!) this historic tribute concert, the CBC was recording the whole performance for a live and a pre-recorded broadcast on both CBC Radio One and Two in addition to Sirius Satellite.

Once inside, there were many speeches, tributes and musical performances. Host Valerie Pringle spoke about her friendship with the 'Maharajah of the Keyboard' who was the only living Canadian to appear on a stamp and who, looking through a telescope at Saturn one evening, marveled, "Maybe we've all made our lives a little too big".

Peterson loved Mississauga and was a proud Canadian, writing such compositions as Canadiana Suite, "Hogtown Blues" and "City Lights". Signed to RCA Victor Records while still a teenager, he went on to win an astounding number of awards, including: eight Grammy Awards, Officer of the Order of Canada (later promoted to Companion), and a Genie for the best film score for A Silent Partner.

Awe-inspiring highlights of the afternoon were a wonderful video of the Peterson trio performing "Yours is My Heart Alone" and later, an amazing feat of technology had an audio clip of Oscar joining in on the afternoon's final performance of his historical "Hymn to Freedom".

Oscar Peterson
Throughout, Peterson's Bosendorfer piano, untouched, stood proudly on the stage. Other adornments, a beautiful photo of Peterson beaming proudly from the back of the stage and another of him with his youngest daughter, Céline, were bowed to with reverence and kissed by many of the presenters arriving on stage.

Céline Peterson had the audience in tears and laughter as she spoke about how her father instilled in her the value of looking at the character of people and not to focus on their appearance. With her world-famous father, Céline had the good fortune to travel to 110 cities and 19 countries! She also spoke about some of Oscar's favourite things including his dog Smedley, who refused to leave his side on the day he died, and his love of a jar of peanut butter — with a spoon.

The audience spent most of the afternoon in 'standing ovation' and 'continuous applause' mode while the emotional speeches and stellar performances held them raptly. Musically, the themes consisted of the powerful struggles and experiences of Blacks and of brotherhood. The awe-inspiring Oscar Peterson Quartet consisting of Monty Alexander, piano; Jeff Hamilton, drums; Ulf Wakenius, guitar, and Dave Young on bass, performed medleys that included whimsical and emotional pieces such as "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top".

Faithful admirer, Herbie Hancock, spoke about how OP affected his decision to become a pianist rather than an electrical engineer then treated the audience to a hauntingly tormented piano piece evoking waves crashing violently against rocks and becoming more introspective as it finally flowed into a whisper of an ending.

Phil Nimmons, a fellow musician and friend of Oscar's for 50 years, took the audience through a historic tour of Toronto's long ago jazz venues such as the Town, Paddock and Colonial Taverns, fondly making reference to their nicknames of "thunder toes and thunder heads" and Peterson's work with children with learning disabilities. He likened OP's playing to that of the great Vladimir Horowitz with his use of the whole keyboard. He ended his tribute with the beautifully poetic "If we listen very carefully, we'll hear such sweet thunder rolling across the sky".

Gregory Charles, the consummate performer, filled his presentation with double entendres and performed his family's hymn to freedom which radiated a gospel theme, then in true Gregory-Charles-the-entertainer fashion, flowed into a flashy cabaret sensibility in the spirit of Queen's Freddie Mercury.

Many artists sent condolences, among them Tony Bennett and Clint Eastwood. There was an audio tribute from Stevie Wonder in which he stressed his regret that they never made their planned recording and the fact that this master could make the piano sing, dance and make his audience feel every single note and chord.

Quincy Jones, who received, as did Herbie, many vocal compliments as he appeared on stage, replied, "Thank you, Baby" to rousing audience laughter. He likened a night of Oscar's trio opening for the Count Basie Band with Frank Sinatra to a U2 of today, saying that it did not get any better than that! His who's who-inflected speech ended, to the great dismay of the expectant audience, without a musical performance.

Oscar Peterson
Monty Alexander played a wonderful version of his own "Sweet Lady" (recorded by OP) which he intertwined with Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds" (a nod to his Jamaican and OP's West Indian heritage) dedicating it to Oscar's widow, Kelly, and daughter, Céline.

He was later joined by Nancy Wilson who gave a heart-wrenching rendition of a song, "about goodbye", that positively pulled out our hearts and wrung them out in front of us, as she sang with a voice that was at once Eartha Kitt and (Montréaler) Shirley Horn. Wilson stated passionately, that "Anyone I have ever loved has never left me, they are always here", pointing to her heart.

Hilary Kole, the last vocalist to record with Peterson and the only one after Ella Fitzgerald, sang a burning ember version of "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" that seared our hearts.

Much too soon, it was time for the grand finale: an all-star performance of "Hymn to Freedom". Peterson's "Hymn to Freedom", inspired by Martin Luther King with lyrics penned by Harriette Hamilton, became an unofficial civil rights anthem.

Directed by Andrew Craig (who also composed all the arrangements) the thundering performance of Measha Brueggergosman, the powerhouse soprano, along with the Nathaniel Dett Chorale, The University of Toronto Gospel Choir, Sharon Riley and Faith Chorale and the Oscar Peterson Quartet almost took the roof off Roy Thomson Hall and brought everyone in the audience to their feet in emotion-filled applause and cheers as the afore-mentioned recording of Oscar joined in on the historical piece.

When every heart joins every heart,

And together yearns for liberty,

That's when we'll be free.

When every hand joins every hand,

and together moulds our destiny,

That's when we'll be free.

Excerpt from "Hymn to Freedom"
Listen to this concert @ CBC Radio 2 – Concerts On Demand.
We welcome your comments and feedback
Laila Boulos
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