Jazz Institute of Chicago

A Jazz Odyssey: The Life of Oscar Peterson

A Jazz Odyssey: The Life of Oscar Peterson
By Oscar Peterson,
New York: Continuum Books, June 2002, 382 pages, $29.95.
Reviewed by David Simpson

In November of 1981 Milt Jackson and three of his long-time musical buddies—Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, and Grady Tate—got together to record "Ain't but a Few of Us Left," Jackson's soulful yet upbeat reflection on jazz survivorship and the twilight of an era. The entire session—but especially the title tune—was a glowing tribute to jazz's golden years and to an ever-dwindling number of artistic giants who began their musical careers in the 40s and 50s.
Two decades later: the "few," alas, have become fewer. Bags himself died in 1999, followed two years later by the great impresario (and producer of "Ain't But a Few of Us") Norman Granz. Ray Brown, who helped launch the bop era with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie during the 40s, departed in July of this year, and of Milt's old MJQ colleagues only Percy Heath, a recent National Endowment of the Arts honoree, is still around.

Drummer and vocalist Grady Tate still performs regularly and also teaches jazz at Howard University, and here and there a few scattered stars from the golden age—a Clark Terry, a Dave Brubeck, a McCoy Tyner—continue to shine. Meanwhile one solitary colossus and undisputed living legend—pianist Oscar Peterson—plays on.

Peterson's glistening compositions and keyboard work have been delighting listeners for parts of seven decades now, and so if anyone is qualified to hold forth on the history of jazz during that period or to spotlight and appraise its greatest performers, it is the cerebral yet affable giant from Montreal.

'A Jazz Odyssey' provides him with just such an opportunity. The result is a rambling, fragmentary narrative that comes up short as an authentic autobiography (indeed there is not much that is intimate or revealing here). Yet it succeeds abundantly as a wide-ranging, free-form memoir and especially as an insider's reflection on the history, personalities, and politics of the modern jazz era.
The book is affectionately dedicated to Norman Granz, with whom Peterson shared a 52-year friendship and professional association. It is organized more or less chronologically, but also (as the title implies) episodically, with plenty of side trips, tangents, and lateral excursions along the way.

The strength of the book is in its vignettes and anecdotes, especially its colorful and well-drawn sketches of famous jazz celebrities, including Coleman Hawkins (whose finicky sartorial habits are humorously detailed), Lester Young (with his legendary persona and patented Lester-speak), Harry Edison (he of the "sweet" playing style and acid tongue), and Fred Astaire (who once gave Oscar an autographed bracelet, which Peterson has worn as a charm and keepsake ever since). The overall cast of characters in this book is vast—as how could it not be given that Peterson has known or played with just about every big name in the business?

When OP writes about himself, he has a tendency to seem slightly stiff and a little formal, a common pitfall for non-professional writers attempting autobiography for the first time. However, when he is simply recalling past adventures or retelling old war stories about life on the road, his style is much more natural and relaxed. Interestingly, he seems to be at his best when writing about other musicians, in each case displaying not only a sharp ear (shock) but also a deft gift for critical analysis, as when he finely discriminates the subtle variations of tone and technique that differentiate a Stan Getz from a Zoot Sims, or an Erroll Garner from a Ramsey Lewis.

As already suggested, readers seeking intimate details of Peterson's life or hoping to find a lurid trove of raw confessions and juicy gossip will be greatly disappointed. Oscar is much too classy and respectful of his readers for that sort of thing. However, this is not to say that his book is timid or evasive. On the contrary, he offers bold, candid pronouncements on a host of jazz-related problems and issues—from racism and drug use to commercialism and the betrayal of jazz roots and traditions.

Moreover, in the portions of the book that are less anecdotal and more purely autobiographical (for example, the last section, which is titled "Matters Personal"), he doesn't shy away from addressing private or potentially difficult topics, such as his four marriages, his experience of new fatherhood at age 66, and his career-threatening stroke.

Of the few personal revelations in the book, two stand out. One is Peterson's obvious pride and deep affection for his West Indian-Canadian heritage: it becomes clear that this unique combination of cultures (and the true cosmopolitanism they helped to engender) have played a vital role in the development of both his personality and his musical style.

His other interesting disclosure is that as a child he hated the piano and devised ingenious stratagems to avoid practicing it. He much preferred the trumpet, and it was only on account of a childhood bout with tuberculosis (after which it became ill-advised for him to play a wind instrument) that he was forced to give up horn playing and return to the despised ivories instead. (Admirers of Peterson's luscious keyboard magic may be forgiven if they regard this TB encounter as not entirely regrettable.)

'A Jazz Odyssey' suffers from a few scattered flaws and minor defects that could have been eliminated by better or more aggressive editing. Peterson's style, for example, sometimes seems stuffy and leaden—an effect due mainly to his repeated use of the third person "one," his affection for constructions like "notwithstanding," and "amongst," and his tendency to pile up lengthy subordinate clauses.

One result of all this is that he frequently sounds more like a philosophy professor (and OP does have extensive academic credentials) or a corporate attorney than the thoughtful, big-hearted, fun-loving, but cantankerous jazzman that he actually is. Surely a more careful editor would have noted that it was George Lucas, not Steven Spielberg who made the film Star Wars. And tighter editing might also have reined in Peterson's penchant for venting his frustrations.

Not that there's anything wrong with a little anger and sarcasm, mind you. It's just that OP often seems to fire away at the wrong targets, as when he excoriates academic music departments for failing to promote jazz education, when the truth is, if it weren't for the programs active in many colleges and secondary schools there would be virtually no traditional jazz being taught anywhere in the U.S. today.
But these are minor grumbles—small irritations in a book that is otherwise charmingly executed and certain to please and inform jazz lovers everywhere.

Today at age 77, after two hip surgeries, a stroke, and a body of work that has spanned the entire modern jazz era, Oscar Peterson is still playing and composing, adding even greater stature to an already gigantic career. Here's hoping that his personal jazz odyssey continues and that there's a lot more music to come. After all, there's only one of him left.

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