Canada Scene: For the love of Oscar, Kelly Peterson is sharing his legacy

Oscar Peterson. Photo: Al Gilbert

Kelly Peterson grew up in the United States during the civil rights era.

She knew the song Hymn to Freedom; it was an unofficial anthem of the movement. She didn’t know it was written by Oscar Peterson. Until, that is, she met the man and attended one of his concerts. Backstage after the show, “I said, ‘I love that song. I’m so excited to hear you play it and he said, ‘It’s my song. … No, really, I wrote it.’ I had no idea.”

The story underscores why she is working so hard to make the public more aware of her late husband’s prodigious legacy as a composer of music and not just as the greatest jazz pianist of the 20th century.

“Oscar is so well known worldwide as the piano virtuoso that he was, that people don’t realize that he wrote as much music as he wrote.”

So she is getting the word out “because I want people to know the music he wrote and did not perform as well as they know the music he wrote and performed publicly.”

One way she has been spreading the good news about Oscar is through the preparation of a recording of famous jazz pianists playing some of Oscar’s compositions for solo piano. The deluxe edition of the album also contains a 100-page book discussing the music. And the project has been taken on the road with a concert on July 10 at the National Arts Centre of some of these players performing Oscar’s work. She has organized two other similar concerts, the first at Koerner Hall in Toronto and the second in Chicago this past April.

An example of the kind of music people have not heard is Oscar’s Africa Suite. Kelly Peterson says he did play publicly two of the sections: Nigerian Marketplace and Peace which he wrote for South Africa during apartheid.

“But he didn’t play the rest of it. I have his original compositional recordings of that. He did not like writing music down by hand. I was thrilled when I was researching this project when I found some music in his handwriting. He seldom did that. He would play it on the piano and record it and then he would give it to someone to transcribe.

“With the advent of synthesizers, he could put in more and different parts and more sounds. Africa Suite is full of different sounds because of synthesizers.” He also wrote a piece for outer space called Uranus Bound that is full of sounds that instruments don’t make, she says, to create a feeling of being in space.

He also stored his music an all sorts of media including cassette tapes, floppy discs and hard drives.

After his death in 2007, Kelly felt charged with a moral obligation: “How do I share this music with other people.”

She wanted to do something but where to start. Inside the Peterson home, sat Oscar’s massive Bosendorfer Imperial Grand Piano. One day, not too long ago, a technician from Bosendorfer came to tune the instrument. He said to Kelly that it was in good shape but added that it needed to be played.

“Pianos are meant to be played. They get sluggish if you don’t,” She said. And that was when a thought crystallized. This was  in late 2012 just before the 50th anniversary of the release of Night Train, one of Oscar’s most famous recordings.

“What if the first recording I do is for solo piano? What if I get people who are friends, people Oscar loved and admired and who happened to be some of the greatest living players? What if I ask them to come here and record Oscar’s music in Oscar’s studio on his piano? How hard could that be?

“Everyone I asked said yes. It was a big thing for every single one of them.”

She sent each pianist some of Oscar’s compositions and asked them to pick two to record. She hoped to do the taping in 2014 over a 10 day period.

She tried to get some funding for the recording but nothing came of that and by then she was committed.

“So I just did it. I thought to myself,  ‘If I get this much recorded, I don’t have to be finished. I’ll have something to show people who might support this.”

By October 2014, she had eight artists recorded. That might have been enough but instead Kelly went bigger.

By the next spring she was adding names like Chick Corea, who was so excited by the project he wrote a special piece of music dedicated to Oscar. This didn’t quite fit the guidelines, but you don’t turn down a new piece by Chick Corea.

Michel Legrand flew from Paris to record for me. He made Oscar’s piano sound like an incredible orchestra. Each person had their own touch on piano. It was quite incredible.”

Ramsey Lewis was so enthused by the idea that he bought some books of Oscar’s music and started practising. Unfortunately he picked pieces that others were already playing.

“So we scurried around to find music that had not already been recorded and in the two days he was there, he learned it. The results of that are his two songs on the CD.”

She never did get funding for the project, but somehow it got done through the generosity of the people who collaborated with her.

“I have a deep faith in God and I know we all felt Oscar’s presence throughout.”

By early 2015, she was thinking even bigger … about a concert to launch the CD. And her friend Merton Mehta, the executive director of the Royal Conservatory in Toronto offered Koerner Hall and he even offered to produce the concert on Dec. 11, 2015.

On that night, Oscar’s daughter Celine hosted. It’s a moment that Kelly will never forget. “You could feel the love from the artists pouring into hall.” The show was live-streamed and still is available. To add a little does of pressure the CD packages landed two days before the concert.

Even Oscar’s Bosendorfer was on stage, announced as an artist making its debut.

“It is one of the artists on the recording. We took great pains to keep the microphones in the same set up for every person who came to record. The only variable was the pianist. And the result was that it sounds like a different piano every time.”

After the success of the Koerner Hall show, Kelly wanted to put the show on the road. As one can imagine co-ordinating such a concert with the busy schedules of concert halls and the pianists involved can be a trick.

But she has persevered.

The second show was in Chicago this past April and the show at the National Arts Centre will be No. 3.

“I’m excited to celebrate Canada’s 150th at the NAC with Oscar’s music and with Oscar (the statue) sitting outside.”

This show will feature Robi Botos, Oliver Jones (from Oscar’s old neighbourhood in Montreal), Jon Kimura Parker, Bill Charlap, Gerald Clayton, Benny Green, Oscar’s bassist Dave Young and the Bosendorfer.

Kelly Peterson has made working on Oscar’s legacy her life’s work. Why?

“Because it is so important and because Oscar trusted me with it. He made me a trustee of his estate.

“I felt (and feel) it is my responsibility to ensure that people heard more of his music. It’s selfish really. I love the memories. It’s bittersweet too because if I close my eyes, I’m sitting in the studio with Oscar while he was composing. I was there for a lot of that.”

Now, “I want to hear other people play. I love these artists and I love to hear them play Oscar’s music their way.”

A composer writes music, she believes, so people will play it.

These days Kelly has downsized and moved. The Mississauga home has been sold. The Bosendorfer is in storage and she is busy managing Oscar’s legacy.

Some of his papers are at the National Library and Archives in Ottawa and more will go there. Some of his memorabilia will go to the National Music Centre in Calgary. And other material may find a home in Toronto. The Mississauga home had a solid wood door with a portrait of Fats Waller burnt into it. That has been donated to Jazz.FM91 in Toronto where she is on the board of directors. They’ve also got a sailfish that Oscar caught and had mounted.

And she is planning more concerts in San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles. She also would like to include Montreal, Vancouver and Calgary.

“And there are more recordings I want to do. There is so much music to share. I need to get the music to where people will know about it. Otherwise it stays here and what a shame.”

Oscar, with Love
Canada Scene
Where: Southam Hall
When: July 10 at 7:30 p.m.


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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.