Daisy Peterson Sweeney
Daisy Elitha Sweeney (née Peterson), teacher, pianist, organist (born 7 May 1920 in Montréal, QC; died 11 August 2017 in Montréal). An accomplished musician in her own right, Daisy Peterson Sweeney is perhaps best known as the older sister, and early teacher, of celebrated jazz pianist Oscar Peterson. She also taught other notable Montréal jazz pianists, including Oliver Jones and Joe Sealey.
Early Years and Education
The Peterson family grew up in Montréal's working-class St. Henri district, known as Little Burgundy. The father, Daniel, was a porter with the Canadian Pacific Railway as well as an amateur musician, and insisted that his children, Fred, Daisy, Chuck, Oscar and May, learn piano and a brass instrument. A stern disciplinarian, he tested their progress on the piano, swatting them on the backs when they made any errors. Daisy proved a dedicated and precise pianist, but found herself unable to cope with the pressures of public performance, which contributed to her decision to become a teacher.
Tuberculosis hit the household in the 1930s, claiming Fred’s life at age 15. Both Daisy and Oscar needed extensive hospital stays. It was following Oscar’s recovery, when continuing on his first instrument, the trumpet, proved too difficult, that he focused solely on piano with Daisy as his instructor. Daisy went on to earn a music diploma from McGill University (ca. 1945), and later studied with Paul de Marky. Other teachers included Karl Steiner (piano) and Phillips Motley (organ). She funded her lessons by working as a domestic servant, as a riveter in an airplane factory during the Second World War and by teaching piano to neighbourhood children.
In addition to her brother, Oscar, Daisy counted among her pupils such noted jazz pianists as Oliver Jones, Joe Sealey, Reg Wilson and Ken Skinner. "I hate to say I taught Oliver,” she once said, “because whatever you gave him to do, he came back with it accomplished — he was such a gifted person. It was the same thing with Oscar." Daisy instead felt that her most important work as a teacher was in helping struggling students.
The students, however, tell a different story. Oscar insisted that his sister "gave me the one thing that has steadfastly sustained me throughout my career: dedication." He also credited her with signing him up for pivotal opportunities early in his career, including lessons with Paul de Marky and a performance stint on the Ken Soble Amateur Hour radio show. Daisy also taught theory and ear training to a large number of students, and was a member of the Québec Music Teachers' Association.
Jones, who studied piano, theory and composition on and off with Sweeney for some 13 years, recalled in a 2012 public tribute to his former teacher: "You explained the hard work, dedication and discipline that it would take… You introduced me to the great masters of the world, and eventually opened the door to a future that a little shy black child from Saint-Henri would have otherwise never known existed."
Other Family Connections
Daisy’s daughter, Sylvia Sweeney, was a key member of the Canadian women’s basketball team at the 1976 and 1984 Olympic Summer Games, and went on to have a successful career as a television journalist and documentary producer. She produced and directed In the Key of Oscar (1992), a Gemini Award-winning National Film Board documentary about her famous uncle, and has been inducted into the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame and the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame.
Honours and Legacy
Daisy sang and played the organ in two Montréal churches: St Jude's Anglican and Union United Church. She co-founded with Trevor Payne the city's Black Community Youth Choir (1974–81) at Union United Church, which became the Montréal Jubilation Gospel Choir in 1982.
In 1987, she received an honorary doctorate from Laurentian University. In 2005, Montréal's celebrations for the 180th anniversary of the founding of the Lachine Canal included a series of four gospel concerts dedicated in Daisy’s honour.
A version of this entry originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.
Mona Holmlund and Gail Youngberg, eds., Inspiring Women: A Celebration of Herstory (Regina, 2003).
Oscar Peterson, A Jazz Odyssey: The Life of Oscar Peterson (New York, 2002).