The Maharaja of the Keyboard

5 December 1945

In the firmament of great jazz musicians, few stars sparkle as brightly as that of Oscar Peterson. Born in 1925 to a hard-working, immigrant family from the poor St Henri neighbourhood of Montreal, Peterson burst like a fiery comet onto the jazz scene while still a teenager. Over a career that spanned more than 60 years, Peterson wowed audiences around the world with his prodigious piano technique, his amazing talent for improvisation, and a range that encompassed everything from the classics to stride, blues, boogie and bebop. He played with all the jazz greats of his age, including trumpeters, Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, and Dizzy Gillespie, saxophonists Charlie Parker and Lester Young, and such famed vocalists such as Sarah Vaughn, Billy Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald. Demonstrating his range, he also accompanied such artistic luminaries as Fred Astaire, and the great violinist Itzhak Pearlman. It was Roy Eldridge who dubbed Peterson the “Maharaja of the Keyboard. Louis Armstrong called him “the man with four hands.” As well as playing the piano, Peterson was a talented composer, and had a singing voice comparable to that of Nat King Cole. His best known compositions are the Canadiana Suite, an album released in 1964, and Hymn to Freedom, composed in 1962. Oscar Peterson and his trio played Hymn to Freedom in 2003 at a gala in Canada to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s Golden Jubilee. In 2008, the Hymn was played at U.S. President Obama’s inauguration.

Oscar Peterson in 1977

Oscar Peterson in 1977, Portrait by Tom Marcello, New York, U.S.A.

Jazz was in Peterson’s blood. Both his parents, Daniel and Olive Peterson, had a passion for music, and encouraged their five children to learn instruments. A tight family budget was stretched to include a piano. Daniel Peterson, a self-taught piano player, instructed his wife and their five children how to play. Young Oscar initially studied the trumpet as well as the piano. But after a lengthy bout with tuberculosis in the early 1930s, which claimed the life of his older brother Fred, Oscar concentrated on the piano. Father Daniel was a demanding teacher, insisting on daily practice and assigning musical homework for his children while he was absent working as a porter on the railway. But Oscar, with his perfect pitch and ability to play songs by ear, was up to the challenge. Later, his older sister Daisy became his piano instructor. His first exposure to jazz came from listening to radio. His father, however, looked down on jazz seeing it as music for the uneducated. He insisted that Oscar learn the classics. Peterson later studied under two classically-trained pianists, Lou Harper and Paul de Marky, the latter was Canada’s most acclaimed classical pianist of the time who taught music at McGill University in Montreal. He also instructed private students, charging $15 hour, a huge sum for Oscar’s parents (equivalent to more than $200 in today’s money). From a very early age, Oscar played in churches, community centres, and schools. It was in such venues, Oscar began to learn how to improvise.

Peterson’s first big break came in 1940 when he auditioned for an amateur music contest hosted by CBC radio. He went on to win not only the Montreal competition but also the national finals held in Toronto. He was only 15 years old, and the only black contestant. He received a cheque for $250 (close to $4,000 today). From there, there was no looking back. He quickly out-grew his Montreal High School band, the Victory Serenaders, and gigs in the school gym. In 1943, he dropped out to play full-time in a popular Montreal big band led by the trumpet player Johnny Holmes after a spot for a pianist opened up when the group’s regular pianist was drafted into the army.

Peterson received further national exposure in 1945 when RCA Victor, one of Canada’s largest recording studios agreed to record him, releasing two 78 rpm records. They were hugely successfully. In early June 1945, Freiman’s Department Store on Rideau Street advertised in The Ottawa Journal “A new VICTOR ‘discovery’ for your piano pin-up collection. Name: OSCAR PETERSON, just a youngster of eighteen, a Canadian lad of inspired rhythm that flows from his fingertips in a sparkling, ear tingling, original style all his own.” The store encouraged people to come listen to a sample recording of I Got Rhythm at Freiman’s Record Studios located on the third floor of the department store, daring them to try to keep their toes quiet!

Peterson’s first known public performance in Ottawa took place on Wednesday, 5 December 1945 at the Glebe Collegiate Auditorium at 8.30pm. The performance called Hot Jazz, featured Oscar Peterson and his jazz trio: Peterson on the piano, Russ Dufort on drums, and George Murphy on bass. The prices of admission was 90 cents, $1.20, and $1.50. The trio played to a capacity crowd, with people standing two and three deep at the back of the auditorium. Extra seats were placed on the stage. Students from Carleton College’s (later Carleton University) sat or stood behind the stage, so that they could at least hear the music even if they couldn’t see the artists. The Ottawa Journal reporter described the twenty-year old Peterson as “one of the foremost exponents of jazz.” The night’s programme featured both classical pieces such as Chopin’s Polonaise as well as jazz pieces, including Duke Ellington’s C Jam Blues and Peterson’s own composition “The Boogie Blues.” The enthusiastic crowd gave the trio three encores. At one of the encores, Peterson played the Sheik of Araby that he had recently recorded. The journalist concluded by saying that Peterson’s boogie-woogie was “probably the best heard in Ottawa for some time.” The trio returned to the Glebe Collegiate the following May. More than 1,200 people crammed into the school auditorium to hear them again perform a selection of classical and jazz numbers, including Peterson’s own compositions.

Between these two Ottawa performances, Peterson made his debut at the prestigious Massey Hall in Toronto in early March 1946. Most of the audience that night had only heard Peterson through his records. As in Ottawa and elsewhere, the crowd was dazzled by his technique and imagination; Oscar Peterson had made it to the big time. Appearances on the CBC radio series Canadian Cavalcade cemented his reputation for being the country’s most popular, up-and-coming, young artist. He made his American debut in 1949 at Carnegie Hall in New York City, where he played alongside Dizzy Gillespie, Buddy Rich, and Ella Fitzgerald. Peterson had been “discovered” by music promoter Norman Granz who had been in Montreal for a meeting. Hearing Peterson play on the radio, Grantz, who produced the “Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP)” series of concerts, tours, and recordings, invited him to perform in New York. From then on, Oscar Peterson was an international star. In 1950, Grantz, who later became Peterson manager, signed him to a contract to perform with JATP. Over the following decade, Peterson participated in fifteen, cross-continent JATP tours.  Peterson’s business relationship and friendship with Granz lasted until the latter’s death in 2001.

Over the decades, Peterson performed in a number of small groups, usually trios. During the 1950s, the other two members of the group were Ray Brown on bass, and Herb Ellis on guitar. In 1958, Ellis left the trio and was replaced by drummer Ed Thigpen. During the 1970s and 1980s, Peterson played with Joe Pass on guitar and bassist Niels-Henning Pederson. In the late 1990s, Peterson formed a quartet, with Pederson on bass, Martin Drew on drums, and Ulf Wakenius on guitar.

Although successful from an early age, Oscar Peterson faced major challenges, not least of which was the racism that he confronted, especially when he toured the U.S. south during the 1950s and 1960s. Even in Canada, he had to endure discrimination, with hotels unwilling to hire black musicians. On one highly publicized occasion in 1951, he was denied a haircut in Hamilton, Ontario owing to his colour. The city’s mayor later apologized. In his quiet, understated way, Peterson fought back. He wrote his Hymn to Freedom in support of the civil rights movement. He was also instrumental in Canadian television advertising becoming more inclusive of minorities. Peterson’s home life also suffered from his constant touring. He was married four times. He also largely missed out on seeing his seven children grow up. Late in life, after suffering a stroke while performing in New York, his ability to use his left hand was impaired. Peterson fought through depression, and continued to perform to adoring audiences. He passed away from kidney failure on 23 December 2007 at 82 years of age.

Oscar Peterson

Statue of Oscar Peterson by Ruth Abernethy, unveiled by HM Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh on 30 June 2010 in front of 10,000 cheering spectators, National Arts Centre, Ottawa, January 2016.

During his lifetime, Peterson received many honours. Sixteen universities, including Carleton University, awarded him honorary doctorates. From 1991-94, he was Chancellor of the University of York in Toronto. He also received eight Grammies from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, including a lifetime achievement award in 1997 for his more than 200 records. In 1972, he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada, and was promoted to Officer of the Order in 1984. In May 2010, just over two years after his death, Queen Elizabeth unveiled a statue of Oscar Peterson seated at his piano outside of the National Art Centre, a place where he had played many times during his long and productive career.

 

Sources:

Batten, Jack. 2012. Oscar Peterson: The Man and His Jazz, Tundra Books: Toronto

Globe and Mail, 1946. “Swing Pianist Stirs Massey Hall throng,” 8 March.

——————-, 2007. “Oscar Peterson, Musician, ‘Man with four hands was one of the greatest piano players of all time.” 26 December.

Ottawa Journal, (The), 1945. “Freiman’s platter chatter,” 7 June.

—————————, 1945. “Hot Jazz.” 5 December.

————————–, 1945. “Peterson played to packed audience in Glebe, 6 December

————————–, 1946. “Oscar Peterson Plays to 1,200.” 10 May.

Marin, Riva, 2003. Oscar: The Life and Music of Oscar Peterson, Groundwood Books: Toronto.

Milner, Mike, 2012. “Frank Sinatra, Oscar Peterson and the maharaja of the keyboard,” CBC Music, http://music.cbc.ca/#!/blogs/2012/3/Frank-Sinatra-Oscar-Peterson-and-the-maharaja-of-the-keyboard, 6 March.

Peterson, Oscar, 1964. Hymn to Freedom, YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tCrrZ1NnCuM.

Images:

Oscar Peterson in 1977, Author Tom Marcello, New York, U.S.A., https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oscar_Peterson#/media/File:Oscar_Peterson.jpg.

Oscar Peterson statue at the National Arts Centre, 2016  by James Powell.

 

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Fort Culture

31 May 1969

The National Arts Centre (NAC) was born out of a dream of establishing a performance hall in the nation’s capital. For decades, Ottawa made do with the Capitol Theatre, located at the intersection of Queen and Bank Streets. Although the Capitol was an architecturally impressive building and could seat more than 2,000 people in its cavernous auditorium, it had been designed for cinema and vaudeville shows. Constructed in 1920 for the Loew’s theatre chain of movie palaces, the Capitol lacked the facilities of a modern theatre.

In 1962, G. Hamilton Southam, a member of a wealthy Ottawa family that owned the eponymous Southam publishing empire, which included the Ottawa Citizen in its stable of newspapers, was approached by prominent Ottawa residents to spearhead efforts to turn the dream of a proper theatre in Ottawa into reality. The well-connected Southam, a diplomat in the Department of External Affairs, was ideal for the job. Within a year, the National Capital Arts Alliance, with Southam at its head, had put together a feasibility study, and was ready to approach the government for funding. The price tag for the building was $9 million (equivalent to $70 million in today’s money.) Their timing was perfect. The 1960s were years of plenty in Canada. The federal government, with money in its pockets, was seeking worthy projects to celebrate 1967, Canada’s centennial year. A performing arts centre for Ottawa fitted the bill perfectly. Southam presented the proposal to Prime Minister Lester Pearson in November 1963, and by Christmas the project had received the government’s formal approval.

Southam was appointed the co-ordinator of the project; he later becoming the NAC’s first director general. He immediately set up advisory committees composed of the country’s leading arts professionals to establish the requirements for an arts centre which would not only have a national mandate to promote and development Canadian performing arts and artists, but would also be bilingual, the first in the world. A number of sites were considered for the new performing arts centre. Nepean Point overlooking the Ottawa River, was an early favourite. But Charlotte Whitton, Ottawa’s mayor at the time, dissuaded the group, offering instead a parcel of city-owned land on Elgin Street.

The architectural contract for the Centre was given to ARCOP Associates of Montreal. Polish-born Fred David Lebensold, a founding member of the firm, was assigned the task of designing the complex structure.  Lebensold was a good choice. He had been a professor of architecture at McGill University, and was a member of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada. He had designed the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver, the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown, and the Place Des Arts in Montreal. Lebensold’s hexagonal design for the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, which was based on the shape of the building site, was in the Brutalist style. Poured, reinforced concrete covered with precast panels of Laurentian-granite aggregate in a variety of textures were used for both exterior and interior walls. “Brutalism” which comes from the French words, béton bru, meaning raw concrete, was a popular architectural style during the 1950s and 1960s for governmental and institutional buildings. The design attracted considerable controversy not least of which for the decision to turn the back of the building towards Elgin Street, with its front door facing the Rideau Canal. Charlotte Whitton called the Centre “Fort Culture.” The building was to house a salon, three performance halls of different sizes—the opera, theatre, and studio—in addition to workshops, rehearsal rooms, dressing rooms, restaurants, and an underground garage.

The approved plan was much larger than the Arts Alliance’s original proposal that Southam presented to Pearson, with the floor area increasing from 175,000 square feet to 474,000 square feet. Substantial funds, $500,000, were also allocated for sculptures, tapestries, and other art works to decorate the building. The budget was accordingly increased from $9 million to $16 million.

Construction began in late 1964. Excavation for the underground parking lot proved challenging owing to the risk of flooding due to the building’s proximity to the Rideau Canal. Costs quickly blew through the Centre’s $16 million budget, and were in excess of $26 million by the middle of 1965. When the building was finally finished in 1969, two years after Canada’s centennial, costs had reached $46.4 million (in excess of $300 million in today’s dollars). Needless to say, there were screams of outrage in Parliament. At a 1968 hearing into the matter, a senior Public Works official admitted that the government had placed more emphasis on quality than economy. A shortage of construction workers owing to building Expo 67 also contributed to cost pressures. But the millions bought a world-class performance centre which put Ottawa on the cultural map of not only Canada but the world.

National Arts Centre

National Arts Centre, May 2015

The decision was made to separate the official opening of the Centre from its first performance. On Saturday, 31 May, 1969, all of Ottawa was invited to an open house and the opening festivities. Nearly 40,000 people toured the facility, giving the new National Arts Centre generally favourable reviews. At the official ceremonies that afternoon, Prime Minister Trudeau presented Lawrence Freiman, the chairman of the Centre’s board of trustees, with the contract between the federal government and the Centre. Embarrassingly, however, the Centre’s state-of-the art sound system misbehaved. After a series of weird sounds and feedback screeches, the system failed, leaving the official speeches inaudible except to those closest to the dais. More successful were the day’s free jazz, folk, and band concerts, as well as the night’s fireworks, and the four searchlights that plied the dark sky.

Two days later, the curtain finally rose at the Centre for the first time. All of Ottawa’s movers, shakers, and arts glitterati attended a gala event in the Opera House. Sending gossip columnists atwitter, Prime Minister Trudeau, then single, was accompanied by Madeleine Gobeil, who had just been appointed to the Arts Centre’s board. Governor General Roland Michener and his wife sat in the royal box.

The evening’s first attraction was the silken, multi-coloured curtain woven by Micheline Beauchemin. Costing $75,000, the curtain was fabricated in Japan since no loom in Canada was large enough. The curtain rose on a specially commissioned, once-only performance of a ballet called “The Queen.” The music was by composer Louis Applebaum, choreography was by Grant Strate, and costumes were by Jean-Claude Rinfret. Eighteen dancers in white baroque outfits danced in front of a large Canadian coat of arms. After the dance, the backdrop was raised to reveal the provincial coats of arms surrounding a Canadian flag which turned gradually into a Union Jack and a blue and white fleur de lys while the orchestra played O Canada.

The pièce de résistance was the world premiere of Kraanerg, a contemporary ballet commissioned for the Centre’s opening, with music composed by Greek-born Iannis Xanakis, dance choreographed by Roland Petit, and sets by the op-artist Victor Vasarely. According to Sarah Jennings, author of the definitive history of the National Arts Centre, the “avant-garde ballet with the discordant electronic-sounding orchestral music” was “hailed by the critics.” Perhaps. For most of the audience, the ballet was impossible to understand, a view seemingly shared by Xanakis and Petit themselves who said that it could not be taken in either a literal or symbolic way. This didn’t leave a lot of room for comprehension. The dancing was highly acrobatic. The Chicago Tribune’s theatre critic wrote that the “company was put through a series of puerile calisthenics which started with Indian wrestling and stopped with push-ups.”  Claude Gingras of La Presse, called the first act “tiresome,” and the second “the effect produced by taking hallucinogenic drugs.”

A few days later, the first play was performed in the theatre. It was Lysistrata, a comedy by the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes about women trying to end the Peloponnesian war by withholding sex from their husbands. The play was adapted by Michel Tremblay, and performed by Montreal’s Theâtre du Nouveau Monde, directed by André Brassard. The first English-language play was George Ryga’s The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, about a young Aboriginal girl living in a big Canadian city, directed by David Gardener, and performed by the Vancouver Playhouse. The first production in the Studio was Party Day by Jack Winter, performed by The Toronto Workshop Productions. The play was an odd choice for the government-funded NAC. Set against the backdrop of the Nuremburg rallies in Nazi Germany, Party Day spoke of the dangers of government sponsorship of the arts.

After several successful years, the NAC ran afoul of changing social and economic conditions in Canada. With nationalism rising in Quebec, especially within the artistic community, it became difficult to attract French-language players to Ottawa, deemed an Anglo backwater. Growing regionalism in the rest of the country led to calls for government arts subsidies to be distributed equitably across the country rather than centred in Ottawa at the NAC. Canada’s economic woes also cast a long shadow. Caught between rising inflation and successive budget cuts owing to the federal government’s yawning fiscal deficits, the NAC was forced to drastically scale back its activities though the 1980s and 1990s. First to go was the Centre’s English and French, cross-country, touring theatre. The opera then found itself on management’s little list of things it could do without. Next on the cutting-room floor was the “Le Restaurant,” the NAC’s haute cuisine restaurant, and the NAC’s in-house repertory theatre companies. Even the acclaimed NAC orchestra was threatened with conversion into a community-based organization. As a final indignity, there was talk of privatizing the NAC, and turning the building over to the National Capital Commission for use as a rental hall.

A renaissance began in the late 1990s, under the leadership of Elaine Calder, and then Peter Herrndorf, aided by a strong artistic team, including world renowned Pinchas Zukerman as music director. As the federal fiscal situation improved, government funding stabilized. In 2000, the NAC Foundation was established to raise funds from the private sector, helping to reduce the Centre’s reliance on the government. There was also a renewed emphasis on in-house theatre with the establishment of the NAC English Theatre Acting Company in 2006.

NAC Logos

Old (upper) and New (lower) NAC Logos

In February 2014, the NAC unveiled its “Road to 2019,” which detailed upcoming artistic events and festivals in the lead-up to the Centre 50th anniversary. It also launched a new logo and motto, “Canada is our stage, Le Canada en Scène,” to underscore its national identity. In December 2014, the federal government announced that the NAC would be undergoing a $110 million refurbishment that would reorient the front of the Centre towards the Parliament Hill, the National War Memorial, and Elgin Street rather than the Rideau Canal. No longer would the NAC have its back to the city.

Sources:

Grace, Garry, 2010. “Resident Theatre Companies at the NAC,” ArtsAlive.ca, http://www.artsalive.ca/collections/imaginedspaces/index.php/en/history-and-context/residentcompanies.

Jennings, Sarah, 2009. Art And Politics: The History of the National Arts Centre, Dundurn Press: Toronto.

National Arts Centre, 2014. About the National Arts Centre, http://nac-cna.ca/en/about/brand.

————————-, 2014, Annual Report 2013-2014, http://www4.nac-cna.ca/pdf/corporate/AR_13-14.pdf.

Taylor, John, 1986. Ottawa: An Illustrated History, Toronto: J. Lorimer and Canadian Museum of Civilization.

The Gazette, 1989. “National Arts Centre facing death sentence,” 3 April.

The Globe and Mail, 1968. “$9 million Arts Centre rises to estimated $46.4 million,” 8 November.

————————-, 1968. “Arts Centre bargain at $46.4 million, architect says,” 13 November.

————————-, 1968. “Arts Centre target for PC complaint of ‘squandermania,’” 27 November.

————————, 2014. “Feds unveil $110-million reno job for National Arts Centre,” 10 December.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1969. “Love at first sight—for most of 40,000,” 2 June.

———————-, 1969. “40,000 agog but centre’s debut shaky,” 2 June.

———————-, 1969. “Curtain Up,” 3 June.

———————, 1969, “One gets tired of acrobatics,” 3 June.

———————, 1969. “The critics have their say,” 3 June.

The Windsor Star, 1989. “National Arts Centre Orchestra Saved,” 4 May.

Image: National Arts Centre, 2015, by Nicolle Powell