The legendary jazz piano virtuoso is the subject of this warmly celebratory if undemanding documentary, which takes us through his life and times and also brings together jazz musicians to play a special session in his honour. Peterson was a musician who played and composed in the tradition of Art Tatum, Nat King Cole and Duke Ellington; largely performing with his own trio, or later solo, which gave him a quasi-classical mien.
Unlike these other greats, however, Peterson was from Canada, and as his friend Quincy Jones remarked: “I didn’t know they even had black people in Canada!” In consequence, Peterson never grew up with Jim Crow segregation, of which there was no legal equivalent in Canada – although racism and discrimination were certainly commonplace enough, and Peterson’s 1962 plangently emotional composition Hymn to Freedom, written for Martin Luther King Jr, became an anthem for the civil rights movement.
This documentary uses some British TV archive footage from The Michael Parkinson Show, though watching this I couldn’t help remembering something that the film doesn’t explicitly allude to: in the 1970s, Peterson himself presented shows for the BBC: Oscar Peterson Invites …, in which Peterson hosted other musicians and pianists, and Piano Party, in which his guests included Rick Wakeman and, remarkably, former prime minister Edward Heath (Heath was a student of the piano and the clavichord, and gave a stately but perfectly decent performance). These programmes may be lost in the mists of time, but how many other BBC programmes back then were fronted by a person of colour? This is a documentary that discreetly does not concern itself much with Peterson’s personality, and concentrates on the music, which is entirely worthwhile.