Remembering Oscar Peterson with music

Dubbed the "maharajah of piano" by Duke Ellington, Canadian jazz pianist Oscar Peterson, a former York University chancellor, has died. The internationally-renowned musician died of kidney failure at his Mississauga home on Dec. 23 at the age of 82.

As an adjunct professor in York’s Department of Music from 1984 to the late 1990s, Mr. Peterson established several student awards in the jazz program. A recipient of an Honorary Doctor of Letters from York in 1982, Mr. Peterson was installed as York’s eighth chancellor in September 1991. He served the University with great distinction until February 1994. Mr. Peterson was made an Honorary Governor of York in 1995 and was a Fellow of McLaughlin College.

Right: Oscar Peterson. Photo courtesy of the Juno Awards Hall of Fame.

"As an adjunct professor of music and later as chancellor, Oscar Peterson’s contributions to York were many and profound," said York President and Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri. "York University is blessed that the greatest jazz pianist of our time was also the most generous when it came to sharing his talent."

McLaughlin College at York University forged a special connection with Mr. Peterson. "Our first master, George Tatham, arranged for McLaughlin College to acquire an 1896 Bechstein baby grand piano for students and fellows to play," said Ian Greene, master of McLaughlin College. "By 1991, it was in terrible condition and Oscar Peterson recommended that it be restored. The students managed to raise the funds, and the piano was recently restored. We were planning a big celebration in the spring and were hoping that Oscar Peterson could attend. The piano is in our senior common room, which is adorned with several photos and posters of Oscar Peterson. It is not far from a student lounge area we call ‘Oscar’s’."

On Jan. 12, a memorial concert tribute titled "Oscar Peterson – Simply the Best" will take place at 4pm at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto. The event will include performances, memories and film & video highlights of Mr. Peterson’s career. The 90-minute celebration of his life is free to the public and includes performances by a number of artists including Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman, the Nathaniel Dett Chorale, the University of Toronto Gospel Choir, and the Sharon Riley & Faith Chorale. Attending the concert will be Governor General of Canada Michaëlle Jean who will speak on behalf of Canadians who admired the musician. An avid pianist and Peterson family friend, Bob Rae will speak on behalf of the family. The afternoon will be hosted by broadcaster Valerie Pringle.

A member of the Order of Canada, Mr. Peterson’s impressive collection of awards includes seven Grammys and a Grammy for lifetime achievement. During his distinguished career, which spanned six decades, Mr. Peterson played with some of the greatest jazz musicians including Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Among his best loved compositions are "The Canadiana Suite", "Hymn for Freedom", "Bach’s Blues" and "Nigerian Marketplace". Mr. Peterson recorded over 80 albums in his own name and was inducted into the Juno Awards Hall of Fame in 1978.

A private funeral held for Mr. Peterson on Dec. 29 in Mississauga drew hundreds of relatives and close friends. He leaves his wife, Kelly, and six children, Lynn, Gay, Oscar Jr., Norman, Joel and Celine, from different marriages. The family has requested that donations in Mr. Peterson’s memory be made to World Vision Canada or Christian Children’s Fund.