Jazz Professional               





Oscar Peterson talking in 1963
Happy with success
Oscar Peterson talking in 1976
Talking to Les Tomkins in 1962
Those who regard jazz playing as being something peculiarly American turn a blind eye on Oscar Peterson. Oscar was born in Toronto in 1925, started piano at the age of six and still takes special instruction several times a year. He was doing a regular radio show in Canada while in his ‘teens and visiting Americans went back home enthusing about his talents. He became such a legend that jimmy Lunceford tried to lure him south. Possibly not believing fully in his own accomplishments, Oscar declined all offers until Norman Granz made a trip to Canada and signed him. When he made his debut with jazz At The Phil at the Carnegie Hall; he stole the show.

How much personal practice do you put in?

When I’m home, or even on a location job with the Trio, I practice on average two to four hours every day if I can. If not, every second day.

How about rehearsing the group?

That usually takes place at the end of each nightly performance, and in a night club we play until about 2 in the morning. Then we’ll probably rehearse from 2 until about 7 a.m.

It has been said that you’ve been over–recorded.

Well, I disagree with that because I think that if you enjoy hearing our group as I’ve enjoyed hearing others you can’t hear too much of them. If you have talent then I think you can be called on just about any time to project it. If you don’t have that volume of talent, you have to conserve it. However, I’m very anxious to see just how far mine will stretch.

Is the Blues fundamental in jazz?

Because you can play the blues, it doesn’t essentially make you a jazz artist. There’s a lot more to it than that. If we thought in that vein, if we set the blues as a criterion for what makes a jazz artist, we’d still be living in the Dixieland era, which we have long passed.

Jazz, like any other art form, must grow, must enlarge: The Dixieland and the Traditional were merely the embryonic part of jazz. Today it’s enveloped in harmonic and technical growth, so I think we must grow with these things.

Do you think that some records you’ve made haven’t really brought out the best in the group?

At times, yes. It’s very hard to record a trio, especially the type we had with Herb Ellis, where there were so many little intimate nuances going on and underlying things. That’s a hazard you have to live with until the engineer on the date becomes used to the group. In other words, there has to be a certain amount of recording, feeling out the group, just like you feel out a new arrangement. When you speak of records that we aren’t quite satisfied with—well, musically, I’m never satisfied, really. Technically, that’s another point. That’s one of the diseases of being a recording artist, no matter how well you’ve played. I can hear my things over and I can think every time at certain passages, “Now, here’s something different I could have played in there.” But that’s natural. The day I become satisfied with my recordings—that’s the day I shall become a listener.

How do the working conditions you’ve found in Europe compare with those in the States?

One thing astounded me. In Germany somewhere I went to hear a big band in a jazz cellar. I was amazed at the amount of time they spend on the stand. I think they spend the better part of fifty out of the sixty minutes on the stand, and they start work around eight at night and finish at four a.m. We have what we think are some pretty rough hours in certain cities of the United States, governed primarily by the liquor laws of each individual state. In certain states, if we work from nine until three–thirty or four that’s considered a rough engagement.

Is there one musician you regard as the Greatest?

I’m an Art Tatum–ite. If you speak of pianists, the most complete pianist that we have known and possibly will know, from what I’ve heard to date, is Art Tatum. I’m not classing myself in that calibre of talent, but Art Tatum was accused of the same thing that I’m being accused of today—that he played so much in so few bars. Yet in the same reviews or opinions where they say “Oh, he plays too much—everything is a run,” they turn round and say “But he’s a genius.” So there’s no way of satisfying them.

Do you think artists reach a certain creative peak?

Yes, it takes time to see how far they will grow before the withering period sets in. Every artist has to have that time. Some will grow and speak with an open mind on their instrument. Others will confine themselves and speak musically with snide remarks. Some will become eclectic. Their talent has to be displayed over a period of time, so you can judge. Take the late Lester Young—during a certain number of years nobody could dispute the talent that was in this man. But everything falls off. As I say, I’m about the Number One Art Tatum fan, but I don’t claim that he played as well pianistically, inventively, technically and tastefully just before he died as he did when he was twenty–four or twenty–five. However, he maintained such a high standard that what he did was not just acceptable or tolerable. Even in his, as you say, falling off period, he was such a tremendous giant that it was still impossible to reach him.

I don’t think the Greats we have today in any way measure up to the Greats that set the initial patterns. But Greats are being born and nurtured. You have to be around and practise your art for a span of, say, fifteen to twenty years, and then it’s decided that you are great. Of course, if you die before that, you automatically become a Great.

As an occasional victim, how do you feel about jazz criticism?

Years ago a critic said something to me that is very true. It concerned a young pianist. Before he even had a chance to prove anything they just sort of beat him into the ground. He said “You know, the best means of evaluating how much water their sayings or writings hold is to figure out that jazz critics you read today, you forget tomorrow.” And this is true—the jazz critics simply do not outlive the music. The music outlives them. Consequently, I’m forced to go with the musician—if for no other reason—just for that.

When you have a goal in mind you can’t afford to listen to someone that has had no training and has given nothing to this art except invalid criticism. It’s worse than a child talking. From what I’ve read, from the so–called inventiveness in their writing—if it could be transcribed as a solo musically, I think it would be very dull.

Another thing. It’s too new an art form. It’s growing too rapidly. By the time you’ve criticised something it’s become the thing—it’s the pattern. By the time you forget to criticise something, it’s there and gone—it may be discarded in the growth.

You don’t think it’s possible to criticise from a natural appreciative instinct?

What license do you use? In other words, if I set myself up to be a judge on the Supreme Court I would first have to be a practising lawyer and work my way up to it. I don’t know of any jazz critic who has taken comparable steps. But then maybe a musician isn’t fit to be a jazz critic. Who knows?

Copyright © 1962 Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved