Duke Ellington once called Oscar Peterson the “Maharaja of the Keyboard” for his virtuosity and ability to play any style with seeming ease, a skill he first began to learn as a classically trained child prodigy. Peterson was introduced to Bach and Beethoven by his musician father and older sister Daisy, then drilled in rigorous finger exercises and given six hours a day of practice by his teacher, Hungarian pianist Paul de Marky. “I only first really heard jazz somewhere between the ages of seven and 10,” said the Canadian jazz great. “My older brother Fred, who was actually a better pianist than I was, started playing various new tunes — well they were new for me, anyway…. Duke Ellington and Art Tatum, who frightened me to death with his technique.”
Despite his own prodigious talent, Peterson found Tatum “intimidating,” he told Count Basie in a 1980 interview. He responded to the fear by learning how to play like Tatum, and like everyone else he admired, while adding his own melodic twists to standards and originals. At 14, he won a national Canadian music competition and left school to become a professional musician.
He recorded his first album in 1945 at age 20. “Since his ‘discovery’ in 1947 by Norman Granz,” wrote International Musician in 2002, five years before the pianist’s death, “Peterson has amassed an incredible legacy of recorded work with Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Fred Astaire, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, and Charlie Parker, among countless other greats.”
In the video at the top of the post from the Dick Cavett Show in 1979, Peterson shows off his elegant technique and demonstrates the “stylistic trademarks” of the greats he admired, and that others have heard expressed in his own style. He begins with his albatross, Tatum’s “stride piano,” a style that requires a good deal of left hand articulation and which, done right, can “put the rhythm section out of business,” Cavett jokes. Peterson then shows off the “the two-fingered percussiveness of Nat Cole,” the “lyric octave work of Erroll Garner,” and double octave melody lines, a very difficult two-hand maneuver.
It’s a dazzling lesson that shows, in just a few short minutes, why Peterson became known for his “stunning virtuosity as a soloist,” as one biography notes. In the video above, producer and YouTube personality Rick Beato explains why he thinks Peterson played the “Greatest Solo of All Time” in the 1974 rendition of “Boogie Blues Study” further up. As David Funk, who posted the Cavett video clip to YouTube, puts it, “What more can you say?” To understand why Louis Armstrong called Peterson “the man with four hands,” we simply need to watch him play.