Celebrating the great Oscar Peterson

Oscar Peterson (image: Tom Marcello Webster, New York, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons)
Oscar Peterson (image: Tom Marcello Webster, via Wikimedia Commons)

As we begin a new academic year, students, faculty and staff at the School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design are delighted to recognize the 30th anniversary of Oscar Peterson‘s Installation as Chancellor of York University on Sept. 13, 1991.

The recipient of numerous honorary degrees and international accolades, Oscar Peterson maintained a special relationship with York, where he lent his considerable expertise to the Department of Music’s jazz program as a teacher and mentor, and his service as York’s Chancellor from 1991 to 1994. Ambitious musicians, such as Andy Milne (BFA ’90), came to York to study with Peterson. Thanks to the Oscar Peterson Scholarships, his legacy continues to launch bright, emerging musicians, including Sarah Thawer (BFA ’15), also known as the Drum Guru.

Image of the stage in Burton Auditorium, just before the installation of Oscar Peterson as York University Chancellor. Included in the front row: The Hon. Bob Rae (Premier of Ontario), Harry Arthurs (York University President), Oscar Peterson, Professor Louise Ripley(Chair of the Senate of York University) and Michelle Hughes (President, York Federation of Students). (Image citation: York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, Computing and Network Services fonds, ASC60780)

Internationally, Peterson was recognized as one of his generation’s most accomplished pianists and performers. Jazz great Duke Ellington praised Peterson, calling him the “Maharaja of the keyboard.” During his lifetime, Peterson garnered nearly every major award available, including the Order of Canada, multiple lifetime achievement awards, numerous Grammy awards, and induction into multiple music halls of fame. Today, tributes and named recognition of him can be found throughout Canada and the United States, in his hometown of Montreal, and the cities of Mississauga, Toronto and Ottawa.

Although known primarily as an electrifying pianist, Peterson was also an accomplished composer and dedicated advocate for music and human rights. His “Hymn to Freedom” (composed in 1962; released in 1963 on Night Train) became an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement and was played at the inauguration of American President Barak Obama in 2009.

Image of Oscar Peterson (seated at centre of image)
after his installation as Chancellor of York
University. Image citation: York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, Computing and Network Services fonds, ASC60795.

Throughout his lifetime Peterson espoused the importance of music and education as essential to human flourishing and his role as York’s Chancellor provided students with a powerful figure to follow. As Chancellor, he took great joy in working with the students at York University and congratulating them and their families at their graduation.

“Oscar Peterson is often remembered as one of the greatest musicians in the history of jazz, but he was also an extraordinary leader, teacher, and advocate,” said Rhonda Lenton, president and vice-chancellor of York University. “As both York’s Chancellor and as an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Music, he inspired a generation of York students to seek musical distinction, and his work to increase access to music education has made a lasting impact on our students, our institution, and our society. York University is honoured to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his installation as Chancellor.”

“In the School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design (AMPD), students, faculty and staff are proud and humbled by Peterson’s example of artistry, leadership and excellence,” said AMPD Dean Sarah Bay-Cheng. “Peterson offers York University an aspirational legacy, an important part of our collective history, and an example of what the arts and artists can accomplish in society as we continue to aspire to excellence across the arts, design and creativity at the University.”

The AMPD community continues to honour Peterson’s legacy through their work in support of emerging musicians at York, including the new Summer Jazz and Groove Lab, and through collaborations such as the Helen Carswell Chair for Community-Based Research in the Arts.

The Oscar Peterson Chair in Jazz Performance, now held by trombonist and AMPD music Professor Ron Westray, an acclaimed musician in his own right, continues Peterson’s legacy of leadership both at the University and beyond.

Amid all the challenges of the global pandemic and calls for racial justice, Peterson’s legacy continues to inspire a sense of connection and unity. As the lyricist Harriette Merolla (née Hamilton) wrote in “Hymn to Freedom” in 1961,

When every heart joins every heart and together yearns for liberty,
That’s when we’ll be free.
When every hand joins every hand and together molds our destiny,
That’s when we’ll be free.

“Peterson’s music, leadership and activism remind us of the power of the arts in forging our collective humanity: only together can any of us truly be free,” said Bay-Cheng. “As a community of artists, designers, creators, makers, thinkers, and scholars, AMPD remembers Oscar Peterson as both an exemplary musician and human being, one who sought a better future for all. We will continue to aspire to live up to his legacy of creative greatness in service to the greater good. Thank you, Oscar.”