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Oscar Peterson: The Man and His Jazz

by Jack Batten

Biographers tread a narrow path between fiction and documentary. Those writing with a young audience in mind have the add­­ed challenge of figuring out what is appropriate to tell children about adult lives.

This used to be an easier task. Biographies for children were primarily written about people we wanted them to emulate: heroes, role models, those who triumphed over adversity. But writing about real people is a trickier business now: we’re less sure what constitutes an exemplary life. Our general taste is geared more to revealing hypocrisy than inspiring virtue. Our standards are also more rigorous, discouraging invented dialogue or hypothetical musings of the “she must have felt” variety.

Jack Batten walks confidently through these various minefields in his biography of Canadian jazz pianist Oscar Peterson. Born in Montreal to poor, immigrant parents, Peterson went on to debut at Carnegie Hall at age 24. When he was eight, he spent a year in hospital with tuberculosis. Like other members of his family he developed arthritis. At 67, he suffered a stroke, losing much of the power in his left hand, yet he continued to perform and record for years. He seemed to weather the endemic racism he encountered without becoming embittered. In a jazz world fuelled by drugs he remained a straight arrow. Batten quotes him as writing: “I knew for certain I didn’t belong at that party.”

Batten knows his subject well: there are photos of him interviewing Peterson in the mid-1960s, and he is the former jazz reviewer for The Globe and Mail. A conscientious researcher, he fashions a convincing aspirational narrative from his material. His jaunty, journalistic writing makes the reader feel like one of the gang. One politician is described as “an affable, low-key operator,” and a particular guitarist’s style is marked by “long shimmering lines of improvisation.” Batten puts the facts of Peterson’s life in context, opening up many avenues of further exploration for the curious.

Writing about music has been likened to dancing about architecture, yet Batten’s text becomes energized when he describes Peterson’s music. Of the pianist’s perfor­mance of Duke Ellington’s “Love You Madly,” Batten writes: “At about the two-thirds mark in the song, after several quietly passionate passages at medium tempo, Oscar went into a series of extra-large, two-handed chord rolls, the kind that threw listeners, metaphorically, against the back of their seats.”

Batten makes us really want to hear the music for ourselves (I went straight to iTunes and was indeed blown back against my desk chair). He also provides a tidy capsule history of jazz for the uninitiated, making sense of its varying influences. A detailed analysis of a 1956 concert recording, The Oscar Peterson Trio at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival, is a kind of jazz primer.

Batten gives us a moving and convincing portrait of Peterson, but his text is not well served by its package. A dramatic cover portrait and some innovative type design and layout invite us in, but the quality of the photographs is uneven – many are grainy, overexposed, or ill-placed. This is particularly disappointing given that, as Batten tells us, Peterson was a keen amateur photographer.

Still, substantial biographies of Canadians for young readers are in short supply, and this volume will be a welcome choice for students who have been given the “biography assignment.” Its other obvious curriculum-related use is for the study of black Canadian history, joining titles such as Viola Desmond Won’t Be Budged by Jody Nyasha Warner and Season of Rage by John Cooper in putting a human face on this strand of our story.

This book’s real potential is for the kid who may not know a Thigpen from a Thelonious, but who wonders about the shape of a life. What must it be like to discover, at age 12, the art form that will shape the rest of your existence? How does it feel to grow up with such a stern and demanding father? What happens when you outshine your teachers? What is it like to be famous? What gives somebody the drive, ambition, and focus to say, “On our worst night we’ve got to sound better than most people sound on their best night”?

Beyond answering these questions, this well-crafted bio might just inspire some young pianist to slog away at scales and exercises in the hope that, with luck and determination, the hard work might lead to greatness.