Inaugural Oscar Peterson Entrance Scholarship recipient chosen

The inaugural recipient of the Oscar Peterson Entrance Scholarship at York University, part of a major new scholarship program endowed by the Ontario government to commemorate legendary Canadian jazz musician Oscar Peterson, has been announced.

Jazz saxophonist Eric Miller will receive the prestigious entrance award, valued at $40,000, over four years.

“After hours of deliberation and careful review, Eric’s application ascended to the surface as the most deserving one,” says Professor Ron Westray, the Oscar Peterson Chair in Jazz Performance in York’s Department of Music, who chaired the scholarship selection committee. “My colleague [Juno Award-winning saxophonist] Mike Murley confirmed Eric’s remarkable talent and potential on the sax. Eric’s case for financial support was also very compelling.”

Right: Ron Westray and Eric Miller

Miller had already set his sights on studying jazz at York when he found out about the scholarship. Shortly before he was notified about the funding opportunity, his family was struck by a double blow: his father lost his job and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease within the space of a week.

“I was so excited when I found out I was selected for the scholarship,” Miller says. “It’s been a huge relief for me and my family. Without this award, I would likely have had to defer my studies yet another year.”

Miller had taken a break from school to work some odd jobs and to travel in China and North America. Upon his return, he was forced to take another year off studies after an accident that left him unable to practise his instrument for several months.

“I was horsing around with my younger brother and fell off a playground climber, losing several teeth and breaking my wrist,” Miller says. “But while that was a disappointing setback, I think the last two years really gave me a lot of experience and time to just grow up. It’s so true that growth comes through challenge. While this period of my life has been very arduous, it’s left me feeling really calm and sure that music is what I want to do.”

Miller has been playing sax since Grade 7 and started private lessons to complement his music studies in high school. He credits his instructor, Dave Neill, for turning him onto jazz and counts a host of musical influences, ranging from Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz and Charlie Parker to Michael Brecker and Chris Potter.

“I also listen to Oscar Peterson’s music a lot and got to see him play live once too,” says Miller. “The day he died, I put every Peterson CD I owned into the stereo and my whole family listened to them on shuffle for at least 12 hours. He’s such an important Canadian icon and my love for his music makes this scholarship extra special for me.”

Miller is very excited to continue learning about jazz, and do so in a university setting. “I can’t wait to study with Mike Murley. I own about a dozen of his CDs. And I’ve heard that York’s program gives you space to pursue your own music passions. It’s a huge opportunity for me.”

Miller plans to audition and play in every ensemble he can get into, from the York University Jazz Orchestra to small jazz combos. “Music is an integral part of my life and I’m going to play as much as I can,” he says.

The Oscar Peterson Entrance Scholarship provides Miller with $10,000 for his first year of study at York. If he keeps his marks up, the scholarship may be renewed for three additional years. In addition to the entrance scholarship, three in-course Oscar Peterson Scholarships valued at $10,000 each will be offered this fall to students currently enrolled in York’s music program.

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.

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