Born in Montreal, Canada, in 1945 to parents from the West Indies, Oscar Peterson became one of the most renowned pianists in jazz history. On February 22–23 in The Appel Room, six extraordinary pianists come together to celebrate Piano Master: The Oscar Peterson Story. This special event celebrates the 70th anniversary of Peterson’s 1949 epic United States debut concert at Carnegie Hall.
The all-star piano lineup consists of NEA Jazz Master Kenny Barron, Afro-Cuban jazz legend Gonzalo Rubalcaba, rising stars Gerald Clayton and Ben Paterson, and Peterson’s two protégés: Robi Botos and Benny Green. The rhythm section also features the best in the business: bassist John Clayton (this evening’s music director), drummer Jeff Hamilton, and guitarist Ulf Wakenius, plus vocalist Paul Marinaro.
As a child, Oscar Peterson studied the classical music of Franz Liszt, practicing four to six hours a day. He eventually came to love jazz and boogie woogie and earned the nickname “the Brown Bomber of the Boogie Woogie.” By 1950 he joined up with bassist Ray Brown as a duo and eventually worked duos with Barney Kessel, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, Joe Pass, Count Basie, and Herbie Hancock. He later collaborated with Ben Webster, Clark Terry, Milt Jackson, and his protégé Benny Green. Peterson’s main influences were Teddy Wilson, Nat “King” Cole, and Art Tatum.
With six outstanding pianists on this bill, I made it a point to focus on the NEA Jazz Master of the bunch, Kenny Barron. “Well, we had a piano in the house, and my brother Bill played tenor saxophone. It was largely through him that I really got into jazz. In Philly, where I’m from, we had one of the best jazz radio stations back in the late-‘50s. That’s how I heard a lot of music. That’s how I fell into the music. Bill got me my first gig playing in a band he played in.”
Of this evening’s Oscar Peterson salute, Barron replies, “I appreciated his prowess at the keyboard, his mastery of the piano. Going back to the ‘50s, when I first heard him, he was just astounding, really astounding. It is an honor to play this show for him.”
Barron has performed with just about everybody, including some soulful hard bop with Freddie Hubbard and Stanley Turrentine. Before that he honed his chops with Roy Haynes, Lee Morgan, James Moody, Dizzy Gillespie, Yusef Lateef, and Milt Jackson, and then on to Ron Carter, Buster Williams, Ben Riley, Charlie Rouse, Sonny Stitt, Eddie Harris, Eddie “Lockjaw”, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Stan Getz, and Charlie Haden. More recently he’s worked with Grady Tate, Ann Hampton Callaway, Gretchen Parlato, Dave Holland, and Lionel Loueke. He is a piano man in demand!
“The piano functions the same as a guitar. It supplies the harmony—that’s number one,” Barron explains. “It supplies the harmony for everything. No matter who’s playing or what’s being played, you need to have the piano underneath—the harmonic underpinning. The piano serves that function as well as being as a solo instrument. That’s the importance of the piano. That’s the instrument that got me!”
Barron was a professor at Rutgers University for 25 years before also teaching several years at Juilliard. He has since taken a break from the music schools, though he has a love for his students and the art of teaching. “I’m trying to learn as much as I can now. It’s great to be able to give back, and that’s what it’s really all about: giving back. With the students, by the time they got to me, they were almost fully formed. They were on their way to developing their own musical personalities. What I do is offer refinement, more than anything else—touch, and developing melodic ideas, and things like that.“
To attend a great concert and be moved by it and walk out feeling inspired and fulfilled, that is what makes this art form called “jazz” almost spiritual. “Well, it is magic in a sense. Each person, on any instrument, has their own particular, individual touch. In the case of the piano, or horn, trumpet, or saxophone, it’s developing their own individual sound. For me, it was Tommy Flanagan and Hank Jones. That’s who got me, in terms of how I touch the piano. I can listen to Monk and identify him because his sound was a lot more percussive, or Randy Weston, they were both very percussive players. I could listen to the way Barry Harris would play lines, and I could hear that he was influenced by Bud Powell. Everybody’s different, and that’s the way it should be.”
The variety of pianists on this bill is wide and varied. Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba received the following praise from Chicago Tribune writer Howard Reich: “…Gonzalo Rubalcaba ranks among the most accomplished jazz pianists in the world today and perhaps stands at the top of that elite group, thanks to a colossal technique and an unfettered musical imagination.” Four-time Grammy Award–nominated pianist Gerald Clayton studied with Kenny Barron. In 2018 Ben Paterson was named as the First Place winner of the inaugural Ellis Marsalis International Jazz Piano Competition. Hungarian-born and raised in Canada, pianist Robi Botos is another protégé of Oscar Peterson and has worked with everyone from Branford Marsalis to Chaka Khan. This performance promises to leave you with a whole new vision of the piano as a prominent jazz essential.
“I love playing at Jazz at Lincoln Center!” exclaims Kenny Barron. “The pianos in all the rooms are great. As a matter of fact, when they first opened, Bill Charlap and myself tried several pianos at the Steinway factory for Dizzy’s Club. The sound in all the rooms is really good. It’s spacious. I love playing there.”
Scott H. Thompson is an internationally published writer and jazz publicist.