Oscar Peterson: The Doorway Into Jazz Piano

It’s astonishing how many famous jazz pianists listened to and emulated Oscar Peterson when they were first starting out. Much more so than other greats such as Art Tatum or Bud Powell. Herbie Hancock considers him to be a major influence, and I’ve read countless interviews where other established jazz players speak about their early love for Peterson’s playing. It seems like this is also true for many of today’s jazz pianists who are first starting out.

Why is this? Why not Red Garland, or Horace Silver? Why not Randy Weston?

I think the answer lies in the combination of swing and blues language that Peterson brought to the table. His playing is jazzy but not too far “out.” Accessible but not watered-down. Personal yet universal. And what budding jazz pianist wouldn’t love to be able to play some of Peterson’s trademark virtuoso runs? (In fact, one of the very first jazz piano solos I ever transcribed was Oscar’s improv on “Take The ‘A’ Train” from his Oscar Peterson in Russia album. I had to slow it down to half-speed to hear the notes clearly, but I just had to find out what notes he was playing during those lightning-fast runs!)

Here’s the recording I listened to over and over and over again: Take The ‘A’ Train

In addition to playing such great jazz piano, Peterson also knew how to please an audience. This was a live concert, and listen to how the instruments start one-at-a-time, dramatically building up to the piano’s entrance with Peterson playing Duke Ellington’s famous intro. The audience loved it, and it must have made the moment all the more thrilling.

If you’re learning jazz piano, do yourself a favor and listen to some Oscar Peterson. A LOT of Oscar Peterson.

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2 thoughts on “Oscar Peterson: The Doorway Into Jazz Piano”

  1. I can’t stand Peterson’s playing. To me it’s the opposite of the spirit of improvisation and freedom essential to great jazz. It’s mechanical, pathologically repetitive, and devoid of any self-aware expression of emotion or spirit of musical discovery. When you hear other great jazz musicians express wonder over the directions their playing went when really in the zone, you’re hearing a description that would have never come from Oscar’s mouth. With him, everything is calculated, pointlessly flashy, and mind-numbingly mundane. Ultimately, he has nothing to say.


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