Jazz Professional               




Oscar Peterson talking in 1963
The School
Happy with success
Oscar Peterson talking in 1976
Talking to Les Tomkins and Arthur Johnson in 1963

I've had all kinds of students at the school. They come and lay themselves bare in front of you and say: "Well, help me." And you go to help them musically and, in my case, pianistically. Of course I stand back in the areas that I think they're lacking in. Then like a doctor I do a sort of a musical diagnosis of their playing, what they're missing and so forth— the things that they don't have. And I set out certain things for them to do. Often they're very impatient with these things. They'll do them, but they'll do them with a sort of crass attitude— you know: "Well, he says to do it."


Eventually they reach a certain plateau where they can finally grasp a hold on the instrument and can actually see improvement. Until then they're pretty hard to live with. They come through the halls crying; they don't want to hear it; they're going home, some of them; others are ready to commit suicide or become salesmen. You know, this is all part of growing. I'm sure there would be no kick in this if everyone could suddenly say: "Well, I think I'm going to be a jazz musician" and the next day could be the best jazz musician in the world.


Speaking for myself, some nights I become very analytical— not too much on concerts, but in night clubs where we have a chance of playing four or five sets a night. From set to set I become very analytical about my playing. At various times I've felt that I was in a chasm, so to speak and I started wondering: "Gee, when am I going to move out of this; when am I going to step up?" I don't know whether I hear repetition or I just don't like the flow of ideas or the direction the ideas are going in.


We may be off for two days, or a week, or six weeks, or two months or whatever it is. Then I come back and all of a sudden, for no reason at all, I'll suddenly look up and there'll be a different direction to my playing. And there it is— it's part of growth. You can't hurry it. It takes place when it's ready to take place. You can enhance it in some ways by being ready for it technically and harmonically, but you can't hurry it in other ways.


Some musicians I've spoken to have mentioned a sort of a feeling when they're playing of a power outside of themselves, compelling them to play the way they play. Do you ever have any sense of that?


The only sense I have of that is of two powers outside myself—Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen. And when the power is there—when I ask for it, and they come up with it— it's up to me to be able to handle the car as I shift. And if I don't, if I can't handle it—then I get run over. It's that simple.


Any musical power that I may or may not have comes from within. It's a directional thing with me. I can sometimes walk in a hall and look at a piano and say: "I think I've got a mate tonight." Sometimes I'm right, sometimes I'm wrong. Of course, as I said, Ray and Ed have a great bearing on this—because of what they do and when they do it and how they do it.


About five nights ago, I went into a tune and played the first introductory chorus to it, deciding to take a reflective approach to it. But somebody stepped down on the advance button and this overwhelmed me. I didn't really intend to play that way, that particular chorus. I was going to build up to it. So I had to shift my whole feeling.


Ray calls this "being forced down into deep playing." Sometimes it's good— because with them playing the way they decided to play, if I'd continued my trend of thought it wouldn't have meant anything with what they were doing, and vice versa. So I changed— and with changing that quickly I played completely different to the way I had intended to play.


So to that extent your music can be totally unpredictable as far as you're concerned ?


Well, I always say that when it becomes predictable it's time to be a listener. I am not talking about arrangements now, but what we call at the school "instant composition"— or improvisation. When you start pre-setting everything, then you're playing it the safe way. This is one point where this former argument of technique comes up. This is one thing that technical capability gives you. You're not hamstrung with going a set way. In other words, if in the middle of a bar on the third beat I decide to turn the idea round, technically I don't usually have to worry.


This is one of the things I teach at the school that if you have the equipment ready, sharpened and honed, and you suddenly come up with an idea that you figure is the epitome of that whole chorus— and if it happens to be going in another direction or it has a different harmonic shape or a different technical shape— then if you have the equipment technically to cope with it, you can pull it off. If you haven't, you just let it go by and walk off stage and say: "Boy, there's something I thought of that if I could have played it. . . ."


How do you get your pupils at the school to start building their technique?

You know, so young is this jazz medium is, as yet there isn't enough comprehensive material around for us to give students particular jazz exercises. I have a set that I use, of my own, which will be published at some given date. But there aren't enough of them. Not enough musicians of our times have written these things, in the way that we've had past-masters sit down and write piano studies — " The Well-Tempered Klavier" and so forth. The art form is too young. It's coming.


I always approach it from the aspect that you are basically still playing the piano. And if you can play the piano, then there is no major problem of shifting the diatonic system of technical comprehension around to suit your own selfish needs, coupled with whatever modern-day exercises I use. So consequently I have to refer back to the well-tried and true Czerny, Hanon, Dohnanyi and so forth.


You favour those Hanon exercises, do you?

I favour Czerny, actually. I go along with the Czerny for the simple reason that I think it's a very linear type of exercise, which is the way that most pianists today play. And it's a school of velocity. It gives you a certain amount of controlled power. You're taught through learning these exercises to build a reserve which you can use at any given time. Because you start these exercises at a death-march pace and, even when you know them, take them from the death-march pace up to the highest possible velocity you can play them. And then back down, but evenly— somewhat as you do usually when you play "The Well-tempered Klavier."


Do you have your pupils practising with a metronome?

Not all the time. I don't always recommend a metronome because I like pupils to build their own sense of time, as opposed to listening for the tick-tock. If they have a time problem then I usually work with a metronome and make them spend some of their practice time with a metronome and a certain amount away from it. Then they can take from it and finally become independent of it altogether. You can't always play with a metronome.


Could you give us an example of one of your favourite voicings?

We have a certain method of teaching a type of harmony at the school. Mind you, harmony and theory as such, theoretically speaking, is taught by Phil Nimmons m his class. However, the practical end of it— the application of this is what I handle when they come to me for piano.


I find most pianists use too many notes in a chord. They double an awful lot. And the first voicing that I teach them is what I consider the most useful and the most moveable voicing. For instance, in a C major 7th you're using C E G B. I make them delete the C from the right hand— say the right hand is playing those notes— and use it in the left hand, figuring that the bass player would be playing the C on the bottom to give you the C major 7th. Now, the idea also in that type of voicing is that most pianists, when they start, step all over the bass line.


How can one avoid conflicting with what the bass player is playing?

Well, you know, there's one belief I have about playing piano— contrary to the way that many pianists think. They think we play from right to left. I don't think we do. We play from left to right. We play off of the left hand.


In other words, the left hand usually sets the harmonic cluster which the right hand fulfils in a linear sense. Consequently, if you're voicing chords, you voice them in the same way. If you are playing with a bass player he becomes the lowest part of any harmonic clusters or formations that you're going to play. Therefore, if I'm voicing a C chord, I automatically voice it from the E— not from the root.


But, coupled with this in the school, the bass players are taught to play the necessary or the fundamental notes—what we call "the notes of importance." Ray teaches them this. And this is one of Ray's strongest points.


There isn't anything more annoying for a pianist than to arrive at what we call "a point of importance" which demands a root note from the bass player, and he's wandering up around a B or an A or a G. So this is how the studies are coupled. Ray teaches the bass players to play the important notes at the strongest points and I try to teach the pianists to voice from that note. So that when they come together the bass player, say, at the fourth bar automatically plays the C, if it calls for a C chord, and the pianist voices from the E upwards. This way there's no clash.


But the important thing first of all is to delete. Most pianists play too many notes in a cluster. You can only move that many notes around laboriously. There are many arrangements where I have parts with Ray, for instance, just to give it a little more depth, or expand the sound a little. Because even though we're both playing, say, Fs— the same F in the same register— there are two different instruments playing, with two different sounds— so it gives it a different resonance.


Turning to jazz piano effects— you can buy albums of various people's solos, but there aren't many examples of jazz piano effects actually printed and pianists want to know these things. Would it be possible to give some words of explanation on these— like the chord that sounds like a bloyp— you know, it's not a straight chord it seems to go bloyp?


A slur you mean. Well, this is a pianist’s way of trying to enter the horn medium. Years ago I used to play trumpet—and this is one of the things I primarily missed when I first started back to the piano. And it's our way of getting around it.


The best way, I find, to accomplish this is— if you want to play, say, a Bb chord with an A on the bottom and an A on top. A Bb major 7th with the A doubled, so you have A Bb D F A. If you wanted to play that (this is the thing that Erroll Garner does in most of his playing), you would slur from the A down into the A, retaining the D and the F, you would slur the upper and the bottom notes. Actually, your first striking chord would be A Bb D F and A. The thumb and the fifth finger would slide down to the A.


So that's the starting chord and it ends up on A natural?

With the Bb triad retained in the middle. There are a lot of effects like that pianists use. As their methods are printed, as we go along in this medium, more of these things will be put out.


Another interesting effect is the fall— not just a single-note fall, but a chord and the sound of the chord carried on.


That's accomplished with the pedal. One of the things I teach is musical deception. It sounds as if the whole chord has been slurred down the keyboard. As the chord is struck, you lightly depress the sustaining pedal, then slur down with the thumb and re-strike the chord on the bottom. That way the pedal sustains not only the slur but the original chord. Then if you want to get that quick an effect you can let up immediately on reaching the bottom.


So would you start with the thumb at the bottom of the first chord?

No. For instance, on an F chord, using A C D F A coming up— two hands. If I wanted to slur down to a Bb chord—A Bb D F A— say, from the treble, down an octave, I would strike this, my thumb would retain the C. The thumb is used where the point of glissando begins. So you strike, drag the thumb, leaving the other fingers in position by dragging the thumb. And when you arrive you merely assume the next position.


It's quite a simple thing, yet it must take some practise to make it sound as it should.


Well, at any kind of tempo, it's the point of arrival that s important. This one has to be struck almost as a sforzando— right ? Then there's the effect where you take a diminished chord going up in sequence, using the voicing that I was talking about. Let's say you have B D F Ab going up in the right hand. Under my system you would take the F out to revoice it and put it in the left hand. This is the system that I spoke of with the major 7th— the moveable voicing. Now, by removing that F, you have a single line in the left hand. You've created a single line as opposed to one hand trying to play this way. If you move this to the next inversion it becomes D F B, with Ab in the left hand.


As a point of deviation harmonically, if you were to change one of those notes— say, raise the D a tone. That now gives you B E and Ab, retaining the F down below. Then in your next position, going up you would have B G D in the right hand coming down, and Ab in the left hand. And you can do that all the way up the diminished scale. It just creates an altered tone within that progression. You've heard many pianists go up the diminished scale with that voicing, without knowing that this is what they're doing. But then if you alter the middle tone and raise it one whole tone in every cluster as you move up, the second voice in the right hand goes up a tone every time. This is a very interesting thing to play, by the way, in sequence.


Anything that goes up by minor thirds sounds nice, doesn't it? So the second voice in the right hand…


After it's been voiced— you've taken it from the cluster and revoiced it. The rest of the chord retains its same shape. And to tie this together— you were talking about the gliss. The left hand remains the same— F Ab B, etc. If you run chromatically in between those, then it all ties together— using the right amount of pedal. The left hand is now a single line as opposed to being part of a cluster, so there you have a linear phrase in the left hand.


Do you think jazz has made a substantial stride in the last few years?

Yes, I do— and the primary reason is that the soloist is out on his own, as opposed to years ago when we had big bands, where in effect you're listening to one man. When you hear Duke Ellington's band, you're really listening to Duke Ellington or Billy Strayhorn— via the pen. The same with Benny Goodman and Eddie Sauter, Gil Evans and so forth.


In the last few years soloists have been getting a chance to express their own ideas, instead of having to compress them within an eight-bar solo. They have the confidence now to step out and it becomes an individualistic thing. Take Cannonball Adderley: when you hear his group you're hearing an expression of his ideas. The same goes for me. The same goes for any other trio, quartet, sextet. I go with the small groups because I think that this is primarily where the development has come..


But there always have been small groups in jazz.


Not to this extent. And there weren't as many stylists in the small groups. For one thing, you had more trios around years ago than we have today. I don't say they all sounded the same. Far from it. But they were generally all within a certain area of the jazz field. Trios were taken as trios. Today you find trios pitted against big bands. We've had to follow Basie and Ellington— at outdoor Festivals. Years ago you would never have thought of putting Teddy Wilson on after Duke's band— the Teddy Wilson Trio, that is. The concept wasn't that way. There wasn't the boldness about the small group that we have now. Today you'll find Dave Brubeck's group following Lionel Hampton— as actually happened at one Festival. I've heard the Modern Jazz Quartet follow Basie in Birdland— which is quite a trick! Especially the way they play.  And they pulled it off.


You'd say there's more individualism in the best of the small groups?

I think so. We were talking about this the other night. I'm kind of a hothead about parts in my group— pre-arranged parts, you know. I try continually to be on the watch for any kind of sloppy playing in that respect— and I'm as vulnerable as anyone. I look around some nights and play some very strange passages that were never written, or intended to be played that way. But I never say anything about solos. I never have anything to say about the individual solo— unless I'm asked. Ed Thigpen may come back and say: "How did you like that eight-bar thing I played?" I might then say that I didn't think it was completely in context with what followed it— or what it followed. And I might say that it was great.


But I never say anything unless I am asked. A solo is a very personal thing. This is the man voicing his own opinion— on a specific subject. I don't think that should be stymied. I may not agree with what he has to say at all times, but I don't think you should shut him up, nevertheless.


Do you have any actual arrangements written out?

We never write out arrangements. They're conceived and memorized on the spot— or just about on the spot. I find that this helps the powers of retention. I remember years ago, before I ever went to the United States, I tried using arrangements with the very first trio I had. All I know is the music stayed around for months.


Then the minute I tried this system, conceiving, giving the line out to the bass player, giving the part to the drummer— say, four or eight bars at a time, without music, forcing them to remember it, even without a tape recorder or any kind of recording machine, we never had to worry about music stands. It’s a strain sometimes. Especially when you get around five hundred or a thousand tunes, and don't play some for a while.


There are times for playing tunes. We drop tunes sometimes for a month or two— and then all of a sudden the light goes on one night in the middle of a concert or a night club appearance. Suddenly I say: "I must play so-and-so." And sometimes Ray says: "No, don't play that tonight, because I know I don't know my part. I'll have to go over it." Or he may call for one— and I'll have to search back and come up with it, or blow it— one of the two.


We played one the other night on which he played a completely different line. But he played it out of sheer necessity. Without even thinking I called the tune, stomped it off and started in. I played my part and he had an answering part— but he had no conception of what that part was! Once he heard the part following, the whole arrangement came back to him. But as I say, anyone is vulnerable to this. It's a wonderful thing in a group, though, because it keeps your memory pretty sharp.


You know when you're playing at full power— high in the right hand, but in the medium range in the left hand, seeming to double the chord down here— getting back on the voicing. I wonder if you could give an example?


Supposing you're playing an F chord— on F major, say. You must use added notes. On that I might use— coming down, F, D, C and F. In the left hand, going up, I would use A, D and G.


The right hand would be an octave higher than the left, would it?


Yes. That, of course, varies. There are all kinds of variations on it. You could use A, C, D, G if you wanted— or A, C, E, G possibly. Or you can pre-think, if you're going through the major, to the 7th. Say you're going from an F major to an F7th: you can pre-think it in the left hand by playing the same major cluster here and playing A, Eb and G. That's more or less predetermining what is going to take place.


I think voicing is so important. If you have command of all the voicings your playing doesn't become sterile. Because I don't believe anyone today is that involved in style. It's a matter of diversification for your own pleasure, and you don't want to be confined to one concept, especially harmonically speaking. I might play a tune five times a night with the figure in it that you mentioned. And I might play it five different ways. It's only because I tire of one type of voicing and I look for these alternative ones. And another thing that governs this is the bass line that Ray plays. With his changing bass line, what I play varies accordingly.


Is he likely to play something different on the spur of the moment?

Yes and I can tell. His first note obviously would be an F against that figure. If he walks F, A, D, C, that would cause me to think one way. If he walks F G, A, C, then I might just use the 7th.


So really you're listening to his every beat?

So many pianists just think: "Well, this is a couple of bars of F." They expect the bass player to be able to play a couple of bars of F and just go straight on. The notes are important. This is what creates the varying shapes in this type of thing.


That's a very interesting thing to practise— for the effects you come up with. In the same way then, does Ray listen to what you're playing and play accordingly?


Certainly. This is how you get it to come together and move as one. This is another thing we teach at the school— listening to the other members.


Just to tie up our chord voicing example— supposing it was leading to a Bb chord— going F, F7 and Bb, still with F as the top note? I might play two F chords, with F, D, C and F in the right hand, and the A, D and G in the left. And the next two I would use A, Db, Eb, G in the left. Then the Bb chord would have F, D, C and F in the right hand, and Ab, D, and G in the left. That's a Bb7 you're playing right in position— which is the whole idea.


I see. That gives you a little sequence.


It also gives you an option, because then you can obviously change the C and D in the right hand to match this left hand Db and Eb, if you want to. The idea is that all of these things remain within hand-position. The bars would then resolve to Bb. That ties it up.


It's one way of tightening up your playing in a group because you're moving together and you're aware of every step. This sounds very confined, but, truthfully speaking, it becomes second nature. You're listening to your own playing but subconsciously you hear every note the bass player plays and the exact time movement the drummer is playing in. You can teach yourself this. Then you have a subconscious plan.


Many people at various times have said to Ray: "How do you follow Oscar?" He says "I listen." Or they say to me: "How do you know where Ray is going in his solos?" I say: "I listen." That's the only way I can ever tell. I don't listen to the overall solo— I do basically— but I'm listening to all the little steps that he takes, because this is what gives him individuality— and, I hope, gives me the same thing— by not going the set, staid way. You know, I'm playing a certain chord and he may decide to create what we call musical tension. He may take it down a semi-tone lower and hold it there two or three beats longer just to create that tension and then resolve it. Well, if I'm playing the chord I destroy his tension because I've already given the resolution. This is why you have to listen.


Having played with him so long, can you anticipate his methods of resolution fifty per cent of the time?


More than that, actually. But there are times when we can throw each other at a loss. Because sometimes I may see a different harmonic shape to a tune— all of a sudden, perhaps, in the middle of a chorus. I don't turn round and say: "Watch it, Ray," or anything to that effect. I more or less expect him to hear it. Sometimes he doesn't hear it— and he may do the same thing on a tune. He suddenly hears a note that leads to a musical diagonal, let's say— and I may not hear it that way. I may even turn around and say: "Where's he going?" And I miss it— that time. The next time it's imprinted.


Do you regard the trio formula as ideal for you?

In many ways I prefer this to the previous trio plus the guitar— because from a solo standpoint it leaves me just a little more exposed, which I prefer to be now. And it's more percussive. I wouldn't add to it because sometimes you hamstring yourself or clutter a thing by adding. When you get personalities to mesh to the point that I think we have, it's pretty hard to introduce a new personality. It takes an awful long time for it to be absorbed by the group.


You'll be recording in other settings?

We do that from time to time. The only different thing I've been toying with, that I haven't done before, is a solo album. As soon as I get time I'm going to lay it out properly. This is something that has to be laid out. I learned this years ago from Art Tatum. You just don't walk in and make a solo album. When Lou Levy made his, he worked on it pretty hard— and it was a very good album. I enjoyed it. But a solo album can become pretty monotonous if you don't work it out in advance— even just the selection of tunes and the placement of them— apart from all the little nuances that are involved in playing. It'll be a challenge, anyway.


Copyright © 1963 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved