2015 marked a lot of milestone birthdays this year. Billie Holiday, Billy Strayhorn and Frank Sinatra to name a few would be 100 years old. One other huge milestone, 10 years different, would be the 90th birthday of one of the greatest Canadian celebrities to grace the entire world. He became famous without the need of drugs, sex, or flaunting wealth to get ahead. I am talking about the “Maharajah” of the piano himself, Dr. Oscar Peterson.
To cap the festivities, the folks at the Royal Conservatory of music showed an almost 25-year-old documentary about the life and times of this great legend, produced by his niece Sylvia Sweeney, daughter of Oscar Peterson’s sister and teacher Daisy Sweeney. The documentary was a love story, a history lesson, and a jazz fest rolled into one, which at times could lead to sadness, rage, despair, and ultimately, joy.
The film looked at the golden era of jazz, and the trials and tribulations they went through to get to where they are in the most respective places in music history. They were harassed, beaten, threatened to death, and treated like pieces of shit because of the colour of their skin. Oscar Peterson got hate mail because of his decision to hire a white guitar player that would ultimately be one of the greatest small combos in the history of jazz. Oscar Peterson did and lived through it all, and it should serve as a purpose to the millennial generation to know that this music came from love, toil, sweat and tears, not keyboards, electronics, and Autotune.
Upon looking at this documentary, I realized that Oscar Peterson and myself are mirror copies of each other but in a different time. Oscar found acceptance and endearment from the white race just like me. We both came from West Indian families who instilled strict Christian values, conservative values and work ethics that will hold it together in life. Ultimately, the road was paved with suffering, toil and a lot of soul searching to make us the people that will not only make recordings, but also change the game of music. “In The Key of Oscar” is probably the best two-hour history lesson that I have ever encountered that made me respect and honour my Canadian hero even more.