New Oscar Peterson Scholarships will benefit York music students

A major new scholarship program endowed by the Ontario government to commemorate legendary Canadian jazz musician Oscar Peterson will be inaugurated this year at York University.

The Oscar Peterson Scholarships will be launched this fall with an entrance award valued at $40,000 ($10,000 x 4 years) and up to four $10,000 scholarships for current undergraduate music students.

“These scholarships are a remarkable tribute to the Oscar Peterson legacy,” said Professor Ron Westray, who holds the Oscar Peterson Chair in Jazz Performance in York’s Department of Music. “They reflect the importance of music education, in particular jazz education, and help open the doors to students who might not otherwise be able to pursue their passion and take their studies to that next level.”

Right: Ron Westray

The prestigious entrance scholarship will provide $10,000 to one first-year music student in 2010 and up to five incoming students annually once the program is fully in place. If the recipient maintains high academic standing, the scholarship may be renewed for three additional years. The 2010 application deadline is April 4.

In the first three years, as the scholarship program is phased in, current music majors will also have the opportunity to apply for an annual $10,000 in-course scholarship in the fall.

To be eligible for these scholarships, candidates must demonstrate exceptional musical ability (especially in the field of jazz performance) and must be facing social, economic or personal barriers that could inhibit their ability to pursue a university degree. Applicants must be Ontario residents and hold Canadian citizenship, permanent residency or protected person status.

"As the Oscar Peterson Chair at York, my mandate includes community outreach and encouraging the next generation of artists, and in particular, young jazz talent," said Westray. "One of the ways I’m doing that is by bringing high-school students in the GTA to campus to experience live jazz performance. They will also be given a chance to hear about Oscar Peterson’s legacy.

“For the Oscar Peterson Scholarships we are specifically targeting students in underprivileged areas,” Westray said. “Reaching out to talented youth who are in financial need is a key aspect of the terms of the endowment and my own work here at York.”

Potential candidates for the entrance award can find detailed information on York’s Future Students Scholarship Web site.

The Oscar Peterson Scholarships are supported by a $1-million endowment from the Government of Ontario. Westray’s position as Oscar Peterson Chair was created by an additional $4-million endowment from the provincial government.

As an adjunct professor in York’s Department of Music from 1984 to the late 1990s, Peterson gave workshops and established several student awards in the jazz program. The recipient of an honorary degree from York in 1982, Peterson was installed as the University’s eighth chancellor in September 1991, serving with great distinction until February 1994. He was made an honorary governor of York the following year. The internationally celebrated jazz pianist and composer died at his Mississauga home in December 2007 at the age of 82.

“It’s such an honour to be here at the university where Oscar Peterson taught, in a position founded in his name,” said Westray, who came to York last summer from the University of Texas at Austin. “He is a legend at the level of Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell. I learned so much by reading about his life and studying his recordings.

“Even though he was proudly Canadian, Oscar Peterson is regarded by many in the US as an American jazz legend because of the huge mark he left on the music,” Westray said. “In a way, my appointment complements or completes this circle, with my own standing as an American artist offering Canadian students a perspective that might not be found in Canadian culture.”

As a performer, Westray is best known for his work as lead trombonist with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, directed by Wynton Marsalis, and his collaborations with Wycliffe Gordon. He has appeared in concert with such luminaries as Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Stevie Wonder, Benny Carter, Dewey Redman, Roy Haynes, Randy Brecker and a host of other pre-eminent artists.

Westray teaches performance, composition, history and theory in York’s renowned jazz program, and co-directs the York University Jazz Orchestra with Al Henderson. He was recently appointed music director of a jazz series launching next month at the Toronto Centre for the Arts in North York. His latest CD as leader, Medical Cures for the Chromatic Commands of the Inner City (Blue Canoe Records, 2008), will receive its Canadian release as part of that series on April 9.