The song is ended, but the melody lingers on

Monday, 14 January 2008 — 10:58am | Jazz, Music, Pianism

Saturday’s Oscar Peterson tribute concert is now available online. You can listen to it in segments, but I obviously recommend sitting through the whole thing; if you do have to pick and choose, though, make it Herbie Hancock’s speech and performance. (More on him later.) Having just returned to school after three weeks out of the country, I wasn’t able to make the pilgrimage to Hogtown, but after listening to some of the heartfelt eulogies I’m beginning to think I should have stood out in the cold for ten hours on the steps of Roy Thomson Hall with the rest of the throng of ladies, gentlemen and music-lovers all who, like me, would not have the sense of personal identity they possess today were it not for the inspiration of the greatest jazz pianist there ever was or ever will be—and my favourite musician of any stripe, period.

The myriad tributes in O.P.’s honour, both in print since his passing and in the concert, offer a personal underscore to something I always knew about, but only on paper—that he was not only an exemplary musician, but an extraordinary role model in every respect: someone who demonstrated that you can have your cake and eat it too—that great jazz doesn’t have to come at the price of drug addiction or poisoned race relations. The real condition of its production is the will to be the calibre of artist you want. And the kind of man who realizes that is the kind of man who will play his way through a debilitating stroke and live to the ripe old age of 82.

I’m not a sucker for biography. I like to imagine that you can appreciate art apart from its creator, and that in the majority of cases, you should. But sometimes, I have to wonder how much of that is a matter of burying my head in the sand—not wanting to acknowledge that Bill Evans’ sentimental figurations were paying the tab for the heroin coursing through his left arm—and it’s a relief to look up to someone like Oscar Peterson and not have to make a single excuse.

That’s when you know you’ve picked a hero. For Nicholas Tam, that moment came at the age of fifteen.

As a nugget of personal history, I should probably emphasize that growing up, there was never any jazz in my household. It wasn’t anything deliberate on the part of my custodians—it’s just that the whole genre of music was a world apart from our workaday family life at Tam Manor, as I suspect it is for the entire lives of most of the people you and I know, who live and die their way through existences they personally find fulfilling and don’t have the remotest conception of the wonders they missed along the way.

Around this time my primary musical interests were movie soundtracks, showtunes, doo-wop and the Beatles—a recipe for a future jazz addiction if I ever saw one. I’d been taking classic cinema seriously for at least a year or two, and classical piano for about seven or eight—and somewhere between the two, The Sting introduced me to the syncopated intricacies of Scott Joplin, which vaulted the adolescent me into the Savoy stomping grounds of big bands and Benny Goodman. By accident or design, I landed in the middle of Ross Porter’s After Hours on CBC Radio Two weeknights at 10pm. As is probably true for everybody who discovers modern jazz for the first time, a lot of the music came off as a beautiful jumble of notes that I didn’t understand.

So perhaps it’s understandable that early on, I developed an ideal vision of the jazz I liked as a blend of the traditional melodic clarity of swinging songbooks in the Gershwin mould and the raw magic of virtuosic improvisation, and latched onto two artists in particular. One was Ella Fitzgerald. The other was… well, you know who he is by now.

How would I describe the music of Oscar Peterson? Spectacular without being strictly technical. Melodically dedicated, but never repetitive. Impeccably clean—360 beats per minute and nary a “wrong note” in sight. In a word, gospel; and above all, so much fun.

Here’s what you notice if you’re an upstart amateur in high school on a tea break from Liszt who’s trying to imitate Oscar Peterson with little hands that span half the breadth of his Rachmaninov-class paws: you can’t. You get yourself into the habit of swinging too hard, playing too fast and dumping ornamental clichés all over the floor—and you realize two things: it was what he played, not how fast he played it. He was the quickest on the draw because he aimed from the hip bars in advance, when his fingers were still gunning away on an entirely different set of triggers.

(I heard Oscar say in an interview once that contrary to intuition, most of his figures would probably be easier with small hands. That was swell of him, but that doesn’t mean I can’t harbour a bit of resentment at the genetic lottery for not giving me a left hand that comfortably spans a tenth.)

Eventually my awareness of jazz branched out, as it had to, and I was surprised to discover that not everybody thought well of Oscar’s virtuosic stylings; Miles Davis, always the minimalist, criticized his playing for its excess of sound and deficit of silence. And I’ll admit that by no means is Oscar all-encompassing; no musician is the alpha and omega of his instrument, and you’ll never perceive the whole of jazz piano’s dynamism as a medium if you don’t consider the remarkably different contributions of Evans, Tyner, Hancock, Mehldau and so on. It’s surprisingly difficult to fit O.P. into the canonical Armstrong-Parker-Davis-Coltrane axis of American jazz history that takes us from trad to bop to modal and into the avant-garde. I personally think of him as the one who carried Art Tatum’s torch to its logical conclusion—exemplifying, perfecting it at every turnaround.

What the critics who disregard Oscar’s speedy shimmers don’t realize is how much intention and direction he put into his improvisations. A little over a year ago I wrote a paper on Canadiana Suite that dabbled here and there in musical semiotics—I won’t reprint it at this precise moment, but I may do so in future. To provide a capsule: upon a very close listen of his best-known extended composition, what I discovered was that his spontaneous explorations—their ranges, their rhythms—are every bit as programmatic as the tunes in which they are embedded. He scales his usual peaks in “Land of the Misty Giants”, restrains himself to the lower elevations as he rolls across the prairies in “Wheatland”, pulses along at a lazy pace over Ed Thigpen’s locomotive drumwork in “Blues of the Prairies” and clangs the upper registers with a mallet-like percussiveness in “March Past”. His romantic vision of Canada arises directly from a targeted juxtaposition of bluesy breakneck urbanity and nature at its most diatonic and pristine, and it all comes through in the way he plays—nay, imagines. I’d go as far as to say that Canadiana Suite lays a very strong claim to being the the definitive nationalist work of music in our country, and I invite my readers to suggest worthy challengers if you dare.

I’d like to draw attention to one final story of remembrance that I’ve been following—that of Herbie Hancock. Consider this: at 67, Herbie’s now the elder statesman of jazz piano (and pretty much every conceivable instrument, analog or electric, that resembles a the black-and-white layout of a piano keyboard), and he grew up on Oscar Peterson.

A powerful reminder, isn’t it, that everyone who’s the best at what they do had to go through a phase of futility where someone had already laid claim to being the best there ever will be:

Peterson was quick, however, to acknowledge that he stood on the shoulders of giants. Hancock recalled a dinner at Quincy Jones’ home a few years ago, at which he gathered the courage to ask a question of Peterson that had long troubled him.

“I’d always been afraid to ask,” said Hancock. “But, knowing my own feelings about Art Tatum, I was curious about how Oscar felt about him. So I asked, and he said, ‘Lemme tell you, sir…’

“And he went on to tell me how, when he was a kid, he was a pretty good piano player, and he’d always hold his own in the cutting contests that young players had. And he said he got really cocky about it.

“So one day his father, who would take him to places to hear other piano players, said there was a guy coming in town that he might want to listen to. And Oscar said he thought, ‘Well, who could this be? I can beat the best of them.’

“It was Art Tatum, of course. And he said that after he heard Tatum play, he went home, went up to the second floor of his house and immediately tried to push his piano out the window. He said he was never cocky again. And I said, ‘You too, Oscar?’ And he said, ‘Me too. Tatum scared me to death.'”

They’re an odd couple if you think about it; if you’ve ever heard Mr. Hancock’s music, you know that he doesn’t sound even remotely like Oscar. Yet that’s where he started. That’s what took Herbie Hancock from a major in electrical engineering to a storied career in composition, production, and improvisation across all contemporary genres. A late starter in jazz, looking at what he’s accomplished is almost enough to make me feel young again—and the way he tells it, he owes it all to O.P.

Or, as Herbie put it in his speech on Saturday:

“If it wasn’t for Oscar Peterson, there might have been another electrical engineer in the world.”

Make that two, Mr. Hancock. Make that two. Oscar Emmanuel Peterson, merci.

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2 rejoinders to “The song is ended, but the melody lingers on”

  1. Edison Liu

    Dear Nicholas,

    I came across your you tube recording of When Sonny Gets Blue and was literally blown away. It was perhaps one of the best piano renditions of the tune i have ever heard. I became interested in how I had not heard of you before but realized that perhaps like me, you had another life in the sciences but found some spiritual resonance in improvisation.

    I am much older than you are, but I too started in classical piano and migrated into jazz without any influence from my hardworking immigrant parents – who did not play music but aspired for their children to become proficient. I began jazz at 13, and with my brother who became my bass accompanist (to be followed by my son). medical school and a life as an academic crowded out much of practice time, but as I matured, I found time for my refuge. I too had Oscar Peterson, Herbie Hancock (along with Bill Evans), as my heroes.

    I was preparing to play When Sonny Gets Blue for a national fundraiser for my institute and wanted to listen to other renditions when I chanced upon your YouTube performance.

    Any rate, I wanted very much to tell you Bravo… I learned a lot.

    Edison T. Liu

    Monday, 8 July 2013 at 5:02am

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