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RIP Oscar Peterson

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TORONTO: Oscar Peterson, whose flying fingers, hard-driving swing and melodic improvisations made him one of the world’s most famous and influential jazz pianists in a career that spanned seven decades, has died. He was 82.


Peterson died at his home in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga on Sunday, said Oliver Jones, a family friend and jazz musician. He said Peterson’s wife and daughter were with him during his final moments. The cause of death was kidney failure, said Mississauga’s mayor, Hazel McCallion.


“He’s been going downhill in the past few months,” McCallion said, calling Peterson a “very close friend”. During his illustrious career, Peterson played with some of the biggest names in jazz, including Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. He is also remembered for the trio he led with bassist Ray Brown and guitarist Herb Ellis in the 1950s.


Peterson’s impressive collection of awards include all of Canada’s highest honours, such as the Order of Canada, as well as seven Grammys and a Grammy for lifetime achievement in 1997. “I’ve always thought of him as Canada’s national treasure. All of Canada mourns for him and his family,” said Jones. “He had 60 full years of being considered the top jazz pianist in the world.”


“A jazz player is an instant composer,” Peterson once said in a CBC interview. “You have to think about it, it’s an intellectual form.” Peterson’s stature was reflected in the admiration of his peers. Duke Ellington referred to him as the “Maharajah of the keyboard”, while Count Basie once said “Oscar Peterson plays the best ivory box I’ve ever heard.”


Herbie Hancock, another legendary jazz pianist, said Peterson’s impact was profound. “Oscar Peterson redefined swing for modern jazz pianists for the latter half of the 20th century up until today,” Hancock said in an email message. “I consider him the major influence that formed my roots in jazz piano playing. He mastered the balance between technique, hard blues grooving, and tenderness. No one will ever be able to take his place.”


Peterson’s death also brought tributes from notable figures outside the jazz world. In a statement, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said “one of the bright lights of jazz has gone out”. “He was a regular on the French stage, where the public adored his luminous style,” Sarkozy said. “It is a great loss for us.”





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