Many years ago, a Chicago high school kid opened the newspaper and saw that a great pianist was soon to perform in the Windy City. That great pianist was Oscar Peterson. The Chicago high school kid was Ramsey Lewis. “The first time I ever heard Oscar Peterson was at the Civic Opera House when I was in high school,” recalls Lewis, who’s part of the all-star tribute concert “Oscar, With Love” on April 7. “I’d heard his arrangement of ‘Tenderly,’ which was out as a single, but I’d never heard him in person. And now he’s going to be at the Civic Opera House! I saved my pennies — even borrowed a couple of bucks from my folks, and sat in the nosebleed section. Suddenly, there he is! Oscar Peterson! He just blew me away.”
Little did Lewis know that not many years later, he would be playing on the same bill with Peterson at the London House, a legendary Chicago nightclub at Michigan and Wacker. “At first, I was the off-night guy there, and then I was the alternate guy. It was at the London House that I got to know Oscar. He was always a gracious gentleman, easy to talk to, had a great sense of humor — he was just a wonderful person. But then he goes up on the stage and makes the piano beg him to stop playing — ‘Mr. Peterson, Mr. Peterson, enough! enough!’ the piano says, but Oscar isn’t through. ‘Shut up!’ he says to the piano. ‘I got more to say!’
“But then Oscar could turn around and play a ballad, as soft and as beautiful as anyone could imagine. Oscar Peterson is the Michael Jordan and the Muhammad Ali of piano playing all rolled into one. He mastered the instrument, and he was the master of the instrument. There are 88 keys on the piano, and Oscar played all of them! That was his style. You want to hear piano played really well? Oscar’s the guy!
Universally regarded as one of the greatest pianists of all time, in any genre, Oscar Peterson (1925–2007) left an indelible impact on the field of jazz. Duke Ellington, jazz royalty himself, once dubbed Peterson “The Maharajah of the Keyboards.” “You can hear a little of Nat Cole in his piano playing, but Oscar took it a step further — put more drive, more forward motion to it,” said Lewis, who after his days at the London House, went on to become a jazz icon in his own right. “Some people might say he’s driving too hard when he plays uptempo, but I like that. In my list of piano players, I start with Art Tatum and quickly I get to Oscar Peterson. If you wanted to get in trouble when Oscar was alive, you don’t mention his name and Art Tatum’s in the same sentence — ‘Oscar, you and Art Tatum…’ He’d slap your or kick you in the butt because he looked up to Art Tatum so much. If you listened to Art and you listened to Oscar, you could hear the difference in their playing but you’d also hear how Art influenced Oscar. Oscar has always been one of my favorite piano players and one of my favorite people.”
Because of that personal connection, Lewis quickly agreed to participate in the “Oscar, With Love” album and subsequent concert program organized by Kelly Peterson, Oscar’s widow. “Not that long ago, Kelly invited some piano players to [the Petersons’ home near] Toronto,” Lewis said. “We went up one at a time, of course. The idea was to record a couple of tunes on Oscar’s piano [a rare Bösendorfer Imperial]. Once there, I felt his presence – the pictures on the wall, the awards, and all sorts of memorabilia. Then Kelly takes me to his studio. His piano’s there — the piano he practiced on and wrote music on. I didn’t know if I should play it, but I finally said, ‘OK, let’s see what I can get going here.’
“It just so happened that one of the tunes I’d prepared and practiced, somebody else had already recorded [for ‘Oscar, With Love’]. So Kelly says, ‘That’s OK. Oscar wrote some other music that nobody knows. He never published or recorded it.’
“She goes back in this other room and returns with a couple of pieces that I went over. ‘Let me try this one,’ I told her, and it really worked out well. When Oscar recorded, he sometimes put one or two originals on his albums. Well, Oscar could have put out an entire album called ‘Oscar Plays Oscar.’ He wrote so much really good music.
“Being there and playing his piano was a wonderful experience,” Lewis said. “Then I got word that Jim Fahey [director of Symphony Center Presents] wanted to have a gathering in Chicago of those of us who love Oscar. He asked if I wanted to be part of it. Of course, I wanted to be part of it. Oscar’s the guy!”
You can hear Ramsey Lewis, along with pianists Kenny Barron, Robi Botos, Bill Charlap, Benny Green and Renee Rosnes, with bassist Dave Young and narrator Céline Peterson in the SCP Jazz Series concert “Oscar, With Love: A Tribute to Oscar Peterson” on April 7 at Symphony Center.