Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Oscar Peterson is gone

Christmas Eve brought the sad news that Oscar Peterson, the great master of the jazz piano, had died at the age of 82 in his Canadian home.

Peterson's sound was distinctive, a combination of virtuosity and nuance that allowed him to move seamlessly between understated comps and solos in which a torrent of notes could spill out, sparklingly and perfectly arranged. He was a rare player who led any group in which he played, and led with subtlety. There was something in his character and playing that seemed to pull forth the essence of each musician on the stage, each becoming more him- or herself than she or he could ever be performing solo. And, all the while, he maintained a strong but sage-like presence.

At least, that's how it seemed to me, listening to recordings, for I never got myself to see Peterson play live. Shame on me for that.

My first awareness of Oscar Peterson was a once-removed discovery. When I was growing up, my father listened to a lot different music on our hi-fi, some of it jazz. Thanks to the G.I. bill, my family and I found our upwardly mobile selves crawling out from the shadow of the Bayway oil refinery and into a sparkling, new four-bedroom, split-level on tree-laden land dredged out of a swamp. Our next door neighbor was a podiatrist with a very famous patient; her name was Sarah Vaughan, and she lived in Newark.

Our next-door neighbor, whom I'll call Dr. Eisenstadt, was unlike anybody I had known in our old neighborhood. He was Jewish. In fact, there were quite a few Jewish families in our new neighborhood -- people who probably would not have been so welcome in our old one. Still, we were pretty certain that even if Dr. Eisenstadt had cured the famous and virtuotic Sarah Vaughah of toe cancer, she would not be coming to visit us in Clark, New Jersey -- at least not unless she was willing to run the risk of spending the night in jail, which was where black people who tried to drive through Clark sometimes wound up, just because.

Now, this was initially confusing to me, since we had a lot of Jews in town, and they weren't exactly white. Well, at least that what they said in my old neighborhood. But maybe here they were. I didn't know.

Like a lot of white Americans, what I knew of black people I knew through the television and the hi-fi. We had a Billie Holiday record and some big-band records featuring Ella Fitzgerald, but we had no Sarah Vaughan records.

Years later, after I had left home, I bought my father a record for Christmas. I bought it knowing nothing about it, but for the name of the vocalist, Sarah Vaughan, and a vague recognition of one of the players on the album: Oscar Peterson. It turned out to be one of Sarah Vaughan's last recordings, and it truly is, as the name for her goes, divine. The album takes its name from one of the tracks -- "How Long Has This Been Going On?" -- and teams Vaughan and Peterson with guitarist Joe Pass, bassist Ray Brown, and drummer Louie Bellson. Peterson holds court on the title track and positively swings on a knock-out rendition of "I've Got the World on a String."

But it's on the pensive and moody tracks -- "You're Blasé", "Easy Living", "My Old Flame" -- that Peterson really works his magic, never getting in the way of the Divine One's dramatic delivery, but supporting her as if he were her empath.

Critics often derided Peterson for being all hands and no soul. I think they missed the point. Peterson just needed other musicians in order to be his best. He allowed their emotions to fill him up, and then passed them back to their owners in a richer, deeper form.

I return to Clark once every couple of years. It's a suburb of Newark, the city that gave us Sarah Vaughan, and Elizabeth, which was once a bustling center of Jewish life. I've yet to run into any black people in Clark. But there were more than a few jazz-lovers nestled in that cul-de-sac, and more than a few sighs, I'll wager, when news reached the white people's swamp that Oscar Peterson had died.

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