Oscar Peterson (Plain-Language Summary) | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Oscar Peterson (Plain-Language Summary)

Oscar Emmanuel Peterson, CC, CQ, OOnt, jazz pianist, composer, educator (born 15 August 1925 in Montréal, QC; died 23 December 2007 in Mississauga, ON). Oscar Peterson was one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time. He was famous for his speed and dexterity, flawless technique and swinging style. He earned the nicknames “the brown bomber of boogie-woogie” and “master of swing.” Louis Armstrong called him “the man with four hands.” Peterson released several albums a year from the 1950s until his death. He played on more than 200 albums by other artists. He was also a noted jazz educator and advocate for racial equality. He won a Juno Award and eight Grammy Awards. He was the first person to receive the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement. He was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the International Jazz Hall of Fame. He was also made a Companion of the Order of Canada and an Officer in the Order of Arts and Letters in France.

This article is a plain-language summary of Oscar Peterson. If you are interested in reading about this topic in more depth, please see our full-length entry: Oscar Peterson.

Oscar Peterson

Childhood, Family and Education

Oscar Peterson was the fourth of five kids. He was raised in the poor St. Henri area of Montreal. It was also known as Little Burgundy. His parents came from St. Kitts and the British Virgin Islands. (See also Caribbean Canadians.) His mother, Kathleen, was a domestic worker. His father, Daniel, was a boatswain in the Merchant Marines. He was also a porter with the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). A self-taught organist, he led the family band in concerts at churches and halls. He insisted that all his children learn piano and a brass instrument. Each in turn taught the next youngest child.

Oscar began playing trumpet and piano at age five. He focused solely on piano at age eight after a year-long bout of tuberculosis. (The disease claimed the life of his eldest brother, Fred, at age 16.) Oscar’s first piano teacher was his sister, Daisy. She became a well-known piano teacher in Montreal. Peterson’s brother, Chuck, became a trumpet player. His other sister, May, taught piano.

 Peterson also had other piano teachers of widely different backgrounds. At age 12, he briefly took lessons from the classically trained Louis Hooper. Later, Peterson went to the Conservatoire de musique du Québec à Montréal. At 14, he studied with Hungarian concert pianist Paul de Marky. Peterson was also a classmate of trumpet player Maynard Ferguson. They played together in a dance band led by Maynard’s brother, Percy.

Oscar Peterson with his sister, Daisy

Early Career

At age 14, Oscar Peterson entered a radio contest. He won the $250 first prize. Soon after, he began his own weekly radio show on the Montreal station CKAC. It was called Fifteen Minutes Piano Rambling. In 1941, he was featured on CBM’s Rhythm Time. By 1945, he was heard across the country on the CBC’s Light Up and Listen and The Happy Gang.

Peterson’s command of the keyboard was largely due to his classical background. But the influence of popular American pianists Nat King Cole, Teddy Wilson and especially his idol, Art Tatum, steered him towards a future in jazz. Even a chronic case of arthritis, which first showed up in his teens, could not slow his progress. During his teen years, he received offers from Jimmie Lunceford and Count Basie to move to the US and join their bands. His parents felt he was too young and wouldn’t allow it.  

Peterson emerged as a star in Montreal’s music scene in the early 1940s. He dropped out of high school at age 17 to play in Johnny Holmes’s popular (and otherwise white) dance band. He was with the band from 1943 to 1947. Peterson’s father was unsure of letting his son leave school to pursue a career in music. He told Oscar, “If you’re going to go out there and be a piano player, don’t just be another one. Be the best.”

Canada’s First Jazz Star

Peterson made his first recordings for RCA Victor in March 1945. These early releases reveal the talent for boogie-woogie that earned him the nickname “the brown bomber of boogie-woogie.” They also reveal his incredible technique.

Peterson made sixteen 78s (32 songs in total) for RCA Victor between 1945 and 1949. The last of these show the influence of bebop. These songs were released on CD by BMG France in 1994. They were sold by BMG Canada in 1996 as The Complete Young Oscar Peterson (1945–1949).

Peterson’s popularity made hime the first jazz star that Canada could truly call its own. His exposure on CBC Radio and his two tours of Western Canada in 1946 also added to his growing fame. By 1947, he was headlining Montreal’s Alberta Lounge with his own trio. Montreal radio station CFCF often broadcast their performances. Peterson also composed the music for Norman McLaren’s award-winning National Film Board (NFB) short, Begone Dull Care (1949).

By the end of the 1940s, Peterson had reached the limits of the jazz market in Canada. Word of his talent had spread to the US. Following a tour to Montreal, Dizzy Gillespie told composer and record producer Leonard Feather, “There’s a pianist up here who’s just too much. You’ve never heard anything like it! We gotta put him in concert.” But Feather took no action. Similarly, American jazz impresario and record producer Norman Granz heard about Peterson through other musicians. But Granz also failed to reach out to the Canadian pianist until a 1949 visit to Montreal. Granz was on his way to the airport to leave the city when he heard Peterson playing on the radio from the Alberta Lounge. He told the cab driver to take him there right away.

US Debut

Granz became Oscar Peterson’s manager. He introduced Peterson to American audiences at a Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) performance at New York’s Carnegie Hall on 18 September 1949. The lineup for the show included several jazz greats. Granz couldn’t get Peterson a work visa in time for the show. So he planted him in the audience. He then brought the six-foot-three, 240-pound 24-year-old onstage as a surprise guest. Peterson’s performance with bassist Ray Brown caused a sensation. DownBeat magazine wrote that it “stopped the concert dead cold in its tracks.” It was a watershed moment in Peterson’s career.


Norman Granz was Oscar Peterson’s manager until 1988. He became a close friend. Peterson toured with Jazz at the Philharmonic from 1950 to 1952. His performances, both in concert and on record, were hits.  Peterson placed first in the piano category of DownBeat magazine’s readers’ poll 15 times in 23 years. He was voted first place in 1950–54, 1958–63, 1965–67 and 1972. He also won the magazine’s critics’ poll in 1953.

 In 1950, Peterson made his first recordings for Granz’s label. Ray Brown was his bassist. Their version of “Tenderly” was very popular. In 1951, Peterson formed a trio with Brown and drummer Charlie Smith. Brown was a fixture in Peterson’s groups for the next 15 years. Smith was soon replaced by guitarists Irving Ashby, Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis. The Peterson-Brown-Ellis trio is seen by many as the best piano-bass-guitar trio of all time. They became famous for their passionate soloing. They were also known for tackling complex arrangements and playing at very fast tempos.  

Peterson toured Europe with JATP in 1952, 1953 and 1954. He returned annually with his trio for many years. They often played with the singer Ella Fitzgerald. In 1953, Peterson made the first of many tours of Japan. In the early 1950s, he met his idol, Art Tatum. The two became good friends.

Peterson performed at the Montreal, Stratford, Shaw and Vancouver International festivals. He also played often in Canadian nightclubs. His trio recorded a popular LP at Stratford: Oscar Peterson at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival (1956). It also recorded the acclaimed On the Town (1958) at Toronto’s Town Tavern.  

Peterson always made Canada his home base. In 1958, he moved from Montreal to Toronto. He later settled in Mississauga. Also in 1958, Ellis left the trio. In 1959, Peterson changed the trio to piano, bass and drums. He added drummer Ed Thigpen. The Peterson trio of this period was known for its virtuosity and for improvising well together.

Night Train (1962) was one of Peterson’s most successful albums. Canadiana Suite (1964) was one of his most acclaimed. Between 1963 and 1968, he recorded a series of solo albums called Exclusively for my Friends.

Brown and Thigpen left the trio in 1965. Peterson added bassist Sam Jones and drummer Louis Hayes. Hayes was replaced in 1967 by Bobby Durham. From 1967 to 1971, Peterson recorded mostly in West Germany.

In 1970, Peterson began to mostly perform solo. He returned to the small ensemble format in 1972. He formed a trio with guitarist Joe Pass and bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen. The success of this trio rivaled that of the Peterson-Brown-Ellis group. The band expanded to a quartet in 1974. Drummer Martin Drew was added. In the 1970s, Peterson recorded with such stars as Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie.

The mid-1970s saw Peterson achieve great acclaim. He had four Grammy Award-winning albums: The Trio (1973), The Giants (1974), Oscar Peterson and the Trumpet Kings – Jousts (1974) and Montreux ’77 (1977). He also released several live records. 

Peterson had been afflicted with arthritis since his teens. But he kept a busy touring schedule well into the 1980s. He played and recorded in a duo with pianist Herbie Hancock. He also played several times at the Festival international de jazz de Montreal. In 1984, he played with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra at the Forum. He also performed at Ontario Place and Roy Thomson Hall as part of jazz festivals in Toronto. His album If You Could See Me Now (1983), won a 1987 Juno Award for Best Jazz Album.

Later Career and Health Concerns

By the end of the 1980s, Oscar Peterson’s arthritis had become very severe. As a result, he began touring for only a few weeks each year.

In 1990, he began playing again with the Brown-Ellis trio. They made several acclaimed albums of their shows at the Blue Note club in New York. Live at the Blue Note (1990) and Saturday Night at the Blue Note (1990) won a total of three Grammy Awards.

In 1993, Peterson had hip replacement surgery. Several months later, he had a stroke while playing at the Blue Note. His left side was very affected. He withdrew for two years to recover. Movement in his left hand was restricted. Yet he continued to tour, compose and record.

Peterson appeared at Carnegie Hall in 1995. He also played at a tribute to him at New York’s Town Hall in 1996. His album Oscar Peterson Meets Roy Hargrove and Ralph Moore (1996) was nominated for a Juno Award in 1997. He played Massey Hall and Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto. He also played on occasion at jazz festivals. By 2001, he had released more than 130 albums under his own name.

In 2002, Peterson published his memoir, A Jazz Odyssey: The Life of Oscar Peterson. A tribute concert was held at Carnegie Hall on 8 June 2007. It featured Wynton Marsalis, Marian McPartland, Hank Jones and Clark Terry. Peterson was set to appear but bowed out due to frail health. He died of kidney failure in his Mississauga home in December 2007.


Oscar Peterson wrote and recorded various jazz themes. His “Hymn to Freedom” (from Night Train, 1962) became an anthem of the US civil rights movement . Versions of “Hymn to Freedom” were recorded in the 1980s by Oliver Jones and Doug Riley.

Peterson’s best-known composition was Canadiana Suite (1964). It is an eight-part survey of Canada’s urban and rural features. Songs include “Wheatland” (the Prairies), “Hogtown Blues” (Toronto) and “Land of the Misty Giants” (the Rocky Mountains). Peterson called the album “a musical portrait of the Canada I love.” Canadiana Suite was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1965.

Peterson wrote City Lights (1977), a waltz about the City of Toronto, for the Ballets Jazz de Montreal. He also composed The African Suite (1979), A Royal Wedding Suite (1981) and Easter Suite (1984). He wrote and performed works for jazz trio and orchestra for the 1988 Olympic Winter Games in Calgary. His Trail of Dreams: A Canadian Suite (2000) was inspired by the Trans Canada Trail.

Peterson’s compositions have been recorded by such jazz greats as Count Basie, Ray Brown, Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie, among others. For film, Peterson wrote and recorded “Blues for Allan Felix.” It was heard in the Woody Allen comedy Play It Again Sam (1972). He also composed film scores. His score for The Silent Partner (1977) won a Canadian Film Award in 1978. His score for the documentary In the Key of Oscar received a Gemini Award in 1993.


Duke Ellington nicknamed Oscar Peterson “the Maharaja of the keyboard” and said he was “beyond category.” In the early 1990s, pianist Hank Jones said, “Oscar Peterson is head and shoulders above any pianist alive today. Oscar is the apex. He is the crowning ruler of all the pianists in the jazz world. No question about it.” Acclaimed pianist Marian McPartland described him as “the finest technician that I have seen.” Pianist and conductor André Previn called him “the best” among jazz pianists.


Oscar Peterson was an early inspiration to many pianists. Herbie Hancock once wrote, “Oscar Peterson redefined swing for modern jazz pianists for the latter half of the 20th century... I consider him the major influence that formed my roots in jazz piano playing. He mastered the balance between technique, hard blues grooving, and tenderness.” Diana Krall once called Peterson “the reason I became a jazz pianist. In my high school yearbook it says that my goal is to become a jazz pianist like Oscar Peterson.”

Career as Educator

Oscar Peterson ran the Advanced School of Contemporary Music in Toronto from 1960 to 1962. He did so with Phil Nimmons, Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen. The school drew jazz students from across North America. Peterson’s own students included Skip Beckwith, Carol Britto, Brian Browne, Wray Downes and Bill King.

Peterson wrote four volumes of his Jazz Exercises and Pieces for the Young Jazz Pianist. They were published in the mid-1960s. He was also present at the first Banff Centre for the Arts Jazz Workshop in 1974. In 1985, he became an adjunct professor of music at York University. He also served as chancellor there from 1991 to 1994. He became an honorary governor in 1995. He also helped create the Oscar Peterson Jazz Research Centre at York University’s Winters College.

Canadian Sidemen

Most of Oscar Peterson’s groups were based in the US. But he sometimes used Canadians as his sidemen. Among them were bassists Michel Donato, Steve Wallace and David Young; drummers Terry Clarke, Jerry Fuller, Stan Perry and Ron Rully; and guitarist Lorne Lofsky.

Personal Life

Peterson was married four times. His first wife was Lillian Fraser (1944–58). They had two sons and three daughters. He then married Sandra King (1966–76). He and his third wife, Charlotte Huber (1977–87), had one daughter. He was married to Kelly Peterson (née Green) from 1990 until his death in 2007. They had one daughter together.


Oscar Peterson received many honours and awards. During the 1976 Olympic Summer Games in Montreal, he was awarded a key to the city. In 1978, he was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. In 1990, the Festival international de jazz de Montréal created the annual Oscar Peterson Award. It is awarded for “exceptional contribution to the development of Canadian jazz.” In 1993, he was awarded the Glenn Gould Prize. Gould is Peterson’s only rival among Canadian pianists.

Concordia University named a concert hall in Peterson’s honour in 1998. It also created the Dr. Oscar Peterson Jazz Scholarship in 2000. In 1999, Peterson became the first Canadian and the first jazz musician to receive the Praemium Imperiale Award from the Japan Art Association. It is like the Nobel Prize of the arts.

Queen Elizabeth II meets jazz pianist Oscar Peterson
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II meets jazz pianist Oscar Peterson (R) at Roy Thomson Hall following a gala performance in Toronto, 10 October 2002.
(photo by Frank Gunn, courtesy AFP via Getty Images)

Library and Archives Canada has held Peterson’s archives since 1991. It curated an exhibition about him titled Oscar Peterson: A Jazz Sensation. It opened on Canada Day 2000. It ran until September 2001.

 In 2000, Peterson received the UNESCO International Music Prize. US President Bill Clinton also recognized his achievements. Also in 2000, his album, The Trio, was named a Masterwork by the Government of Canada’s AV Preservation Trust. In 2001, the cities of San Jose, Oakland and San Francisco, California, declared the week of 28 August to 2 September “Oscar Peterson Week.” The US House of Representatives gave him a special commendation.

In 2002, Peterson became the first person inducted into the Canadian Jazz and Blues Hall of Fame. He also received a lifetime achievement award that year from the Urban Music Association of Canada. In 2003, Mississauga named a street Oscar Peterson Boulevard. The government of Austria issued a stamp in his honour. In 2005, a public school in Mississauga was named after him. Canada Post made him the first living person other than a reigning monarch to appear on a stamp. In 2008, “Hymn to Freedom” was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 2010, York University’s Department of Music created the $40,000 Oscar Peterson Entrance Scholarship.

A life-sized sculpture of Peterson sits outside the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. It was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh on 30 June 2010. In 2013, Peterson was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame

On what would have been his 97th birthday — 15 August 2022 — the Royal Canadian Mint issued three million $1 coins in Peterson’s honour. Peterson is the first Black Canadian and the first musician to be featured on a Canadian coin.

See also Oscar Peterson (Obituary)

A version of this entry originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.

Oscar Peterson Statue


Juno Awards
Grammy Awards
  • Best Jazz Performance by a Group, The Trio (1974)
  • Best Jazz Performance by a Soloist, The Giants (1977)
  • Best Jazz Instrumental Performance Soloist, Montreux ’77 – Oscar Peterson Jam (1978)
  • Best Jazz Instrumental Performance Soloist, Jousts (1979)
  • Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Group, The Legendary Oscar Peterson Trio Live at the Blue Note (1990)
  • Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Soloist, The Legendary Oscar Peterson Trio Live at the Blue Note (1990)
  • Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Group, Saturday Night at the Blue Note (1991)
  • Lifetime Achievement Award (1997)
Honorary Degrees
  • Best Jazz Album of the Year (The Trio Live from Chicago), Edison Awards, Europe (1962)
  • Officer, Order of Canada (1972)
  • Award of Merit, City of Toronto (1973)
  • Companion, Order of Canada (1984)
  • Diplôme d'honneur, Canadian Conference of the Arts (1975)
  • Queen’s Medal (1977)
  • Honorary Member, Canadian Music Council (1978)
  • Music Score – Feature (The Silent Partner), Canadian Film Awards (1978)
  • Honorary Lifetime Member, Musician’s Guild, Montreal (1982)
  • Award of Merit, City of Toronto (1983)
  • Roy Thomson Hall Award (1987)
  • Officer, Order of Arts and Letters, Government of France (1989)
  • Lifetime Achievement Award, Toronto Arts Awards (1991)
  • Knight, Ordre national du Québec (1991)
  • Governor General's Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement (1992)
  • Member, Order of Ontario (1992)
  • Best Original Music Score for a Program or Mini-Series (In the Key of Oscar), Gemini Awards (1993)
  • Glenn Gould Prize, Glenn Gould Foundation (1993)
  • Award of the International Society for Performing Artists (1995)
  • Loyola Medal, Concordia University (1997)
  • International Jazz Hall of Fame Award (1997)
  • Praemium Imperiale World Art Award, Japan Art Association (1999)
  • Society for American Music Award, Society for American Music (2000)
  • International Music Prize, UNESCO (2000)
  • Musician of the Year Award, Toronto Musicians’ Association (2001)
  • Person of the Year Award, Skynet Internet (2001)
  • Lifetime Achievement Award, Atlanta International Jazz Society (2001)
  • Inductee, Canadian Jazz and Blues Hall of Fame (2002)
  • Lifetime Achievement Award, Boesendorfer Piano Company of Austria (2002)
  • Lifetime Achievement Award, Urban Music Association of Canada (2002)
  • President's Award, International Association for Jazz Education (2003)
  • Civic Award of Merit, City of Mississauga (2003)
  • Inductee, Mississauga Arts Hall of Fame (2003)
  • Austrian Cross of Honour for Artistic & Cultural Achievement, Government of Austria (2003)
  • Distinguished Canadian Leadership Award, University of Ottawa (2004)
  • Hall of Fame Award, Canadian Association of Broadcasters (2004)
  • Lifetime Achievement Award, BBC Radio (2005)
  • Frank Davies Legacy Award, Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame (2008)
  • Inductee (“Hymn to Freedom”), Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame (2008)
  • Inductee, Canada’s Walk of Fame (2013)