Oscar Peterson remembered with music scholarships

Jazz music students at York University’s Faculty of Fine Arts will benefit directly from scholarships announced by the Ontario government on Friday, in memory of Canadian jazz great Oscar Peterson. The internationally-renowned musician died of kidney failure at his Mississauga home on Dec. 23 at the age of 82.

The government is providing an endowment of $1 million to create five annual $10,000 music scholarships for talented students from underprivileged backgrounds. There will also be a $4-million endowment for the Oscar Peterson Chair in Jazz Performance. 

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

"As a professor of music and later as York’s Chancellor, Oscar Peterson was passionate about educating and encouraging the next generation of musicians," said Mamdouh Shoukri, President & Vice-Chancellor of York University. "We’re very proud to help carry on his legacy by awarding these scholarships and attracting world-class educators with this new research Chair." 

"These scholarships will open doors to a broader range of promising musicians and, in doing so, strengthen the program that Oscar Peterson championed during his time at York," said Phillip Silver, dean of York’s Faculty of Fine Arts. "In this way, his memory will be appropriately reflected through the aspirations and talents of those who seek to follow in his legendary footsteps." 

The Ontario government made its announcement shortly before the first of two gala celebrations of Peterson’s life. On Friday evening music luminaries including Quincy Jones and Nancy Wilson joined Peterson’s family and friends for a tribute as part of a jazz awards ceremony. On Saturday afternoon, a tribute concert addressed by Governor General Michaelle Jean and featuring performances by stars such as Herbie Hancock was broadcast from Roy Thomson Hall.

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

York offers jazz courses at all levels of undergraduate study, plus master’s in the field, taught by 10 full-time and 28 part-time faculty who are leading lights on the Canadian jazz scene. The curriculum includes instrumental and vocal performance, history, theory, composition and arranging. The repertoire spans jazz standards, big band, improvisation and contemporary jazz, enriched by world music traditions including Brazilian samba, Cuban jazz, Gospel, West African drums, steelpan and Afro-American music. 

Jazz performance studies at York University centre on small ensembles (quartets and quintets), plus jazz choirs and orchestra. Currently, the program boasts 15 small ensembles led by some of Canada’s pre-eminent jazz artists, including Music Department Chair Barry Elmes, Al Henderson, Mike Murley, Mark Eisenman, Lorne Lofsky, Frank Falco, Mike Malone, Anthony Michelli, Kevin Turcotte, Roy Patterson, Artie Roth, Jim Vivian and Kelly Jefferson. Jazz vocals are taught by Bonnie Brett, Karen Burke, Rita di Ghent, Lynn McDonald, Richard Whiteman and Sacha Williamson. The York U Jazz Orchestra is directed by Al Henderson and Mike Cado, and there are four jazz choirs, led by Bob Hamper and Mim Adams.

With the Ontario government’s announcement, the Chair will now go through the relevant processes in York’s Senate and Board of Governors.