Friday, December 28, 2007

Great Pianist, Not So Great Personality

Given the fact that his death was announced at mid-day on Christmas Eve and quickly overshadowed by news of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, it's possible that Oscar Peterson didn't get the coverage that might otherwise have been his due. Here in Canada, the accolades went on for hours on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Again, hard to judge what might've been the case had it not been the day before Christmas. I was surprised to see that an obituary I wrote so many years ago that I don't even have a digital copy of it was given extensive play in one of our national newspapers. Again, luck of the draw when most people have already headed home for the holidays.

In the obit I alluded to Peterson's tetchy personality, and his demands to be treated like a celebrity. Ironically, a number of other tributes noted that Peterson was a gentle giant from Montreal who was reluctant to move onto the world stage when impresario Norman Granz came calling in the late '40s. If Oscar was humble then, he sure learned how to be a royal pain later in life. He was too much the gentleman -- and too much in control of his public persona -- to ever insult an entire nation, but I'm sure he could've taught Keith Jarrett a thing or two about being a prima donna.

The stories of Peterson's demands for the star treatment are legendary -- there are at least three instances concerning promotions here in Ottawa (one of which drove a local company into bankruptcy) so one can only assume that he left damage like that in other places, too. My own experience dates to my years as a board member with the Ottawa International Jazz Festival. In my time there we booked some big names, including Ornette Coleman, Wynton Marsalis and Sonny Rollins, but Peterson was the only one who demanded a limousine be put at his disposal for the entire time he was in town. We ran on a ridiculously small budget, so that put a major dent in our finances. The fact that the limo caught fire while ferrying Peterson the short distance between his hotel and the concert venue is one of those stories that keep those of us who were involved with the event laughing.

For an artist who was lauded loudly in the press through six decades, Peterson was curmudgeonly when it came to jazz journalists. The last time that the International Association of Jazz Education held its annual conference in Toronto Peterson excoriated critics -- who make up a sizeable portion of the conference's attendees -- during a keynote address. Nice guy!

I couldn't help but laugh when I saw the juxtaposition in my obituary between a typically sour quote by Miles Davis about Peterson's ability to improvise and a Peterson quote saying that he didn't take criticism to heart because it never came from a fellow musician. I wish I could remember if I set that up, or if an editor did that, but I like to think it's payback for that limo ride.

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