Oscar Peterson Trio
Canadian born pianist Oscar Peterson is most readily identified by the music of the Oscar Peterson Trio, arguably the greatest jazz trio in history. Heavily influenced by the sound of the Nat King Cole trio, the Oscar Peterson Trio stuck to the same format of piano, bass and guitar. Because of the driving sound and high rhythmic energy of both these trios, few listeners even noticed there was no drummer pounding out the time.
Before being lured to the states by jazz producer Norman Granz, Oscar Peterson had already made a name for himself in Canada where he was known as the “Brown Bomber of Boogie Woogie,” partly for his unbelievable piano boogie renditions, and partly for his 6 foot 3”, 250 lb stature. A true virtuoso in every sense of the word, Oscar possessed a technical prowess that was incomparable, yet also played flowing and easy to follow improvisational solos that made him more appealing to the audiences than many of his predecessors. He could make a piano roar, rumble, or purr like a kitten. He was truly a master of his instrument in every sense of the word.
In 1949, shortly after hearing Oscar Peterson perform live in Toronto, Norman Granz, jazz producer and founder of Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP), invited Oscar to make a surprise guest appearance at the upcoming JATP concert at Carnegie Hall. Essentially calling him up from the audience Granz told Peterson “play whatever you want as long as you want.” Granz had wanted Oscar to play solo piano, because he didn’t want anything to detract from Oscar’s playing, but Oscar insisted on playing with a rhythm section so they compromised and Granz allowed him to perform with bassist Ray Brown. Oscar’s performance was a sensation and he astonished the other jazz greats present, such as Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, and Roy Eldridge.
Not long afterwards Oscar Peterson joined the ranks of the Jazz at the Philharmonic and formed the first Oscar Peterson Trio with guitarist Barney Kessel and bassist Ray Brown. Together they traveled the world with Norman Granz jazz troupe, astounding audiences with their brand of jazz. Like the Nat King Cole trio before them, the Oscar Peterson Trio cleverly mixed blazing feats of improvisation into the fabric of well rehearsed arrangements of the tunes. In 1952 Herb Ellis replaced Barney Kessel on guitar. Ironically, Herb Ellis was also white and from Oklahoma, just like Kessel! Oscar was criticized by some in the black community for having a white guy in his trio, but the only thing that mattered to Oscar was that he could play.
For several years the Oscar Peterson Trio dominated the jazz world and were the backdrop for many great jazz artists and recordings, including the only recordings of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong singing together. The Oscar Peterson Trio also made regular appearances on the Nat King Cole television show. Backing up his idol Nat King Cole was a dream come true for Oscar Peterson. But in 1958, Herb Ellis left the trio and was replaced by drummer Ed Thigpen. The era of the original trio sound was over.
By the mid 1960’s the times changed and a new music dominated the scene. Oscar Peterson continued to be recognized the world over as one of the greatest jazz pianists in the history of the music, and continued to record 4 to 5 albums a year. He recorded over 200 albums in his career, including many solo albums. In the early 1990’s the Oscar Peterson Trio with Ray Brown and Herb Ellis re-united to record two albums and play a subsequent tour. Both albums won Grammys.
In 1993, while playing at the famous Blue Note in New York city, Oscar suffered a stroke. After a year of physical therapy Oscar resumed his performance schedule. Oscar passed away at his home in December of 2007, at the age of 83. His influence on jazz is undeniable, and the sound of the Oscar Peterson Trio will continue to inspire musicians for generations to come.