Jazz Virtuoso Oscar Peterson Gives Dick Cavett a Dazzling Piano Lesson (1979)

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Music Unites Us All: Her­bie Han­cock & Kamasi Wash­ing­ton in Con­ver­sa­tion

Decon­struct­ing Ste­vie Wonder’s Ode to Jazz and His Hero Duke Elling­ton: A Great Break­down of “Sir Duke”

Jazz Decon­struct­ed: What Makes John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” So Ground­break­ing and Rad­i­cal?

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Nilton Miguel Costa says:

    Bril­hante comen­tário sobre a tra­jetória desse mon­stro do jazz.
    Sou afi­ciona­do pelo jazz; prin­ci­pal­mente o mas­ter.

  • Jonathan says:

    What a won­der­ful video. When OC is good, it’s real­ly great. The lan­guage of music is dif­fi­cult for many of us non-musi­cians to under­stand, but see­ing it, is anoth­er thing alto­geth­er. What a bril­liant man, so at ease, and con­fi­dent, with Dick Cavett real­ly doing what talk shows should be doing nowa­days, inter­view­ing inter­est­ing peo­ple, and find­ing their inner selves. Bra­vo!

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