Oscar Peterson – Black + White
(Film by Barry Avrich. DVD details below. Film review by Liam Noble)
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It’s the 1970s and, looking straight at the camera, Michael Parkinson proclaims: “My first guest is most simply described as the best jazz pianist in the world.”
When I was a kid in the seventies, there were only two jazz pianists. One was Art Tatum, the other, Oscar Peterson. It’s interesting that Tatum’s speed and dexterity were what urged Peterson on as a kid, a kind of gymnastic striving to be the best. But what is also interesting is that, comparing video footage of the two, they have one thing in common: the music seems to flow through them, unobstructed by the humans operating the instrument. Their faces are strangely unaffected, as if sitting back and watching this stuff come out with relaxed certainty. And it’s fast. Almost without exception, it’s fast. A hurdle to be cleared, a land speed record broken from the comfort of a piano stool. At one point, Peterson’s childhood teacher, the Hungarian pianist Paul De Marky, says: “I taught him technique….speedy fingers…’cos that’s what you need in jazz.” And in a way he was right, because that’s what you needed to get the approval of the television watching public, and the approval of the European Classical music world, who often seemed to assume that velocity was the only interesting thing about Black Music. (The seeds of the “Whiplash” phenomenon were sown early).
Because of all this, Oscar Peterson is sometimes frowned upon by those of us who might prefer to hack more tortuously through the twisted and gnarly woodland of American Popular Song. Still, he had something which, in my opinion, redeems him every time. He swung, and swung hard. And you can’t always do that just on your own. You need to be able to integrate with other musicians. In some ways, this virtuoso thing sells him short, and perhaps there could have been more evidence of his skills as an accompanist with Lester Young, Ella Fitzgerald and Stan Getz among others. But it’s clear what the story is here, and in some ways, though not all, it’s what marks him out.
Throughout the film, archive interviews and present day commentaries alternate with fleet fingered footage. Running in parallel to this main narrative are performances and interviews featuring today’s generation of Peterson fans. There’s a sense that they somehow acknowledge the impossibility of reaching his heights, and for me the most engaging of these players don’t try and emulate him but play their own way and trust the influence to come through. Joe Sealy’s trio playing “C Jam Blues” has some harmonic ambiguity that Peterson would never sanction, and the “Love Ballad” sung by Measha Brueggergosman and Daniel Clarke Bouchard veers heavily into recital hall territory and so gives us an alternative view of the piece. It’s an interesting idea to show his influence on younger musicians whilst telling his story, but it’s also striking how similar the two worlds sound stylistically. Peterson is a towering and humbling influence over those who try to take him on.
He’s not, though, an easy subject. In some ways, the first part of the documentary struggles to find something to say about him: he was brilliant and practised extensively, then burst on to the New York scene and, via the revolutionary promotions of Norman Granz in large, classical auditoriums around the world, became immensely famous. At one point, animated jet planes zip around an imaginary globe, outlining the superhuman concert schedule of the band. The achievements of this man are sometimes overwhelming, like the music. There’s almost too little friction, he’s….too good, and everyone gets it.
At around 40 minutes in, the tone changes as we hear of Peterson’s experiences touring in the deep south of the United States. Despite the now ubiquitous nature of some of these images of racism, it’s impossible not to be shocked anew by them. Norman Granz having a gun stuck in his stomach in Dallas by a policeman who didn’t want him and Ella Fitzgerald to travel in the same cab, Quincy Jones describing the dummy hanging from the local church clock: these are tragic and disturbing images, and it’s at this point that we are reminded that Oscar Peterson’s life would never have been as charmed as we might imagine. Images of contemporary racism in the US hit home, and footage of his trio with Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen playing his classic “Hymn To Freedom” shows him in more reflective mood, the three voices working together as one of the classic rhythm sections of all time. It’s almost too much of a weight for the film to hold, and the narrative shift back to the his continuing musical successes somehow makes the preceding episode all the more shocking.
Success, however, isn’t easy to handle, and the last half an hour reveals his struggles with the loneliness of the road and his punishing touring schedule. “If you go out and have one hell of a concert” he says at one point, “there’s a tingling, there’s an excitement….who do you tell?” The guilt of putting music ahead of everything else and the human cost of it all feels like it hovers, like racism, over a deep chasm that the story reluctantly backs away from. We learn, somewhat by chance almost, that Peterson had three failed marriages behind him (it’s notable none of these women appear in person or anecdotally elsewhere in the film: their consignment to anonymity is a little uncomfortable to say the least).
The final chapter of the story is taken up by Kelly Peterson, Oscar’s fourth and final wife, telling of his stroke in New York that was flagged up by him “missing notes” (again, we are reminded of his superhuman consistency) and his remarkable comeback despite a continuing problem with his left hand. But he didn’t slow down and neither does the music – a frenetic backdrop of “I Got Rhythm” by Stu Harrison takes us through the late life accolades at breakneck speed.
In a world of winners and losers, I think perhaps Michael Parkinson was right: Oscar Peterson was the best jazz pianist in the world and, like Tatum, some of that legacy was the resulting self-deprecation of almost everyone else in the world trying to play jazz. But Parkinson’s world was that of popular entertainment. I am reminded that at the tender age of seventeen, fellow Canadian Paul Bley stepped in for Peterson in the latter’s trio in Montreal. Bley aspired, later in his career, to be “the world’s slowest pianist”, which is a gift of bookended symmetry to me, looking for an ending. I guess there are no prizes for the World’s Slowest Hundred Metres, but that’s because no one is interested in anything other than the quickest way to the finishing line. Jazz isn’t like that, it never was, and even Oscar, wearing his speed on his sleeve, has more to him than trophies on his mantlepiece.
Oscar Peterson: Black + White is available on on DVD & Download-to-Own from 30 January from Dazzler Media / Amazon
Categories: Film reviews