MEX Canadian Profile: Oscar Peterson
To mark the second week of Black History Month, we look back at a figure who put Canada on the map of Jazz history and whose legacy has inspired and allowed countless musicians to follow in his footsteps on their own terms. We are speaking of course of the one and only Oscar Peterson. Many of us at Media Experts have gained a deeper appreciation for Oscar and his impact by way of recent our campaign with the Royal Canadian Mint. We wanted to share more about his background, contributions and achievements, and how he truly personifies Black Excellence.
Virtuoso. Educator. Trail Blazer. Words that are often attached to the great Oscar Peterson, and rightfully so. While their place in his legacy is not contested, his story is even richer and more layered than what is commonly known. Born in Montreal’s Little Burgundy to immigrants from the West Indies, music came into his life early on, by way of the infatuation for jazz that reigned in his neighborhood. He first fell in love with the piano at the age of seven, after an unfortunate bout of tuberculosis prevented him from continuing with the trumpet, which he had taken up two years prior. A dedicated and diligent student, he first studied under his father, and then in later years with Franz Liszt, reaching an almost professional level by age 9.
By the early 1940s, Oscar was a prominent celebrity of Montreal’s music scene, playing solo and with various bands around the city. In 1945, he recorded his first album with RCA, where the trademark style that would follow him throughout his career would emerge. This and the records that followed would establish Peterson as the first true Jazz star of Canada. By the end of the decade, word had spread south of the border, in part thanks to the accolades from the great Dizzy Gillespie. Peterson was introduced to American audiences at a Jazz at the Philharmonic performance at New York’s Carnegie Hall on 18 September 1949, alongside fellow legends Charlie Parker, Buddy Rich, Roy Eldridge and Lester Young.
Among his many accomplishments, Peterson was the first person inducted into the Canadian Jazz and Blues Hall of Fame and the first jazz musician to receive the Praemium Imperiale Award, the arts equivalent of the Nobel Prize, from the Japan Art Association. His famous composition “Hymn to Freedom” became a civil rights anthem worldwide and was even played at President Obama’s 2009 inauguration.
Oscar Peterson made his mark on Jazz music, on Canadian history and most importantly paved the way for other Black musicians. His gratitude to the teachers he had during his lifetime inspired him to give back by way of education. During the early 1960s, Peterson, along with Ray Brown, Ed Thigpen and Phil Nimmons founded the Advanced School of Contemporary Music and later in the 1980s, he taught at York University where he later founded the Oscar Peterson Jazz Research Centre.
His legacy is one that is near and dear to us at Media Experts, evidenced by the work we did with the Royal Canadian Mint for what would have been Peterson’s 97th birthday. The release of a special edition coin was supported by “Oscar Peterson: The Legacy” video series, which we created in partnership with CBC and SRC. The series dove into the lives of contemporary Canadian musicians inspired by Oscar’s profound legacy. A multiple touch point campaign further supported the series such as video, audio and print components along with classic display and social tactics rounded out by TikTok, where the message really shone through this audio focused platform.
To learn more about the campaign and about Oscar, visit: https://www.cbc.ca/oscarpeterson/
The National Film Board has a gorgeous and moving short film on Oscar here: https://www.nfb.ca/film/oscar_en/