Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Oscar Peterson, and learning to love jazz

It was an early spring Saturday afternoon in 1979, and I was hung-over and hungry. I walked into a self-styled 'New York' sandwich shop on The Corner in Charlottesville — literally, a corner, across from the University of Virginia.

Inside, near the front window, a man was playing piano.

I didn't pay much attention; I had hunger to attend to. But after a few bites of the large gooey reuben sandwich, I started to listen.

He was playing that saccharine-sweet song Somewhere Over the Rainbow, but somehow the way he was playing it seemed to deliver it from sentimentality.

His name was Ralph Davis. He and I talked that day, and often after that, and he would introduce me to the world of recorded jazz. There were only two people in jazz that Ralph didn't care for: Nina Simone and Oscar Peterson.

Being younger and contentious, I listened to their recordings, and disagreed.

Jazz pianist Oscar Peterson died over the weekend at age 82.

Like Ralph Davis, some jazz critics found reason to disparage Mr. Peterson: over-recorded, a technical show-off, and other things. Being older and wiser now, I still disagree.

They completely missed the point.

I played (at) piano through my teenage years: listening then to Mr. Peterson's recordings would have been a textbook in jazz piano technique and styling ... and jazz feeling.

Mr. Peterson may have been the pianist heir to Art Tatum. But the man surely did swing! Listen to any from his large catalogue of recordings. (I particularly enjoy those of his drumless trio with bassist Ray Brown and guitarist Barney Kessel. )

Richard Harrington of the Washington Post wrote a wonderful appreciation: The Touch of a Master. And, the Post's Adam Bernstein, in his Page 1 (!) story, finished this way:

Peterson was a towering figure in the literal sense, standing over six feet tall and weighing more than 250 pounds. Ray Brown once spoke of Peterson's "drill sergeant" tendencies, but audience members found him, by and large, a serene and engaging performer -- except when interrupted by loud talk or clinking glasses.

He was known to have barked at one offender, "Would you act this way at a classical concert?"

And Ralph Davis? I haven't seen him — or heard him play — in over 25 years. I long ago forgave him for his Peterson misstep, but I never did thank him for opening my ears to the beauty and power of jazz.

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