Memorable Meetings: Oscar Peterson
by Joe Alterman, 2/5/15

I'll never forget the night I met Oscar Peterson. I was 17 years old; a senior in high-school. A few weeks prior, I had talked my Dad into flying up to New York to see Peterson perform at Birdland, for what turned out to be his final New York performance.

We got tickets to both sets, and we got great seats, right up front. I had heard that Peterson's playing was, by then, a shadow of what it used to be, but I didn't care. I just wanted to be in his presence. 

I watched the curtain in anticipation for what seemed like forever, and to be totally honest, that's not too much of an exaggeration; I made sure that my Dad and I got to Birdland more than three hours before the show. When Peterson finally appeared, I was amazed, to say the least.

An interesting side-note to all of this is that when I was first getting into jazz, I had been listening to a lot of Peterson but hadn't learned much jazz history yet, and, for some reason, grew up thinking that he had already passed away. I thankfully learned that I had been wrong, but even in the years that followed (leading up to this night at Birdland) something about that whole situation only added to his legend, in my mind. Therefore, I remember the feeling that overcame me that night at Birdland, as I watched Peterson approach the piano. To me, he was not only one of my very favorite pianists, but he was also a historical figure...and he was alive! And I was in his company! I felt so lucky.

His set was beautiful.

Sure, he couldn't play all of those extremely fast runs that he used to, and sure, he did repeat certain phrases again and again, but I didn't care. First of all, we were listening to Oscar Peterson! Secondly, whatever it was that he was lacking that evening, he more than made up for with soft, delicate, and seriously heart-felt emotion.

It was interesting to look in eyes as he repeated a phrase. I could see in them a deep pain and frustration. Looking back on it now, I realize that a repeated phrase was often one of two things: 1) a repeated phrase was often the result of his attempt to reach for something he was hearing; I could tell by watching the way his face reacted to what he was playing that he could hear what he wanted to play in his head, but that his fingers simply couldn't always carry out those thoughts, and 2) a repeated phase was sometimes a reluctant giving in to his capabilities at that point; for example, the repetition usually came at the end of a phrase - he'd begin many phrases by playing what he was obviously hearing in his head, but something would happen in the midst of that phrase - the look in his eyes would change immediately and I could see that he was now struggling - that would cause him to end the phrase in a way that was nearly identical to many of the conclusions of phrases that he had already played. To me, I was overcome with joy at watching my hero, but watching him during these moments was extremely sad and often painful.

However, the ballads were beyond beautiful, and his touch was so soft, so smooth, so wonderful, and it was at those moments that I could tell that he was making the piano sound how he'd like it to.

When the first set ended and most of the house had cleared out, I asked the owner of the club if I could meet Dr. Peterson, for he was my hero. "Of course," the man said. "Oscar's backstage and he wants to meet anyone who wants to meet him."

"How nice!", I remember thinking. The man led me backstage. There were about three people in line in front of me, one being Ron Carter. I remember the nervous anticipation I felt as I watched Peterson so humbly accept compliments. Even in his wheelchair he looked like a giant. I remember staring at his huge hands, knowing full well who else's' hands those had shaken. After he took pictures with a few fans and spoke with Ron Carter, it was my turn.

I was lead to the empty seat right next to him and I sat down. I was so nervous that I didn't know what to say. I'm not even sure if I said "Hello" before exclaiming, "You're my hero."

He was just as nice as he could be. We shook hands and I told him that I was a young pianist, that he was my favorite, that I'd flown up from Atlanta just to see him. Upon hearing this, he said, in an almost painful and totally serious manner, "Aw, you flew all the way up here just for that?", hinting in an obvious way that he was not happy with his performance. It was heartbreaking - I didn't know what to say, but I certainly did make sure to tell him that it had been a wonderful performance, which I truly thought it had been. It felt a little strange speaking these words of encouragement to Oscar Peterson, one of the greatest pianists in history, but seeing the humanity of this musical giant was very touching. His honesty about his performance - to a totally random teenager nonetheless - taught me a lot.

This was one of my first encounters with a jazz legend; one of the others had been a few months prior at a Keith Jarrett concert when Jarrett yelled at an audience member for coughing and yelled an exaggerated "thanks" to an adoring fan as he hurried into his car from the backstage door of the concert hall. As I sat there with Dr. Peterson, thinking about all the amazing things he has done in his lifetime yet also realizing how down-to-earth, friendly, honest, and grateful to his fans he was (and still was after all these years!), I felt a sense of relief; knowing now that humility, kindness and honesty was possible for even the greatest of men, and, in Peterson's case, actually being a down-to-earth and kind person was a responsibility and a priority.

We then took a picture together and he signed an autograph for me. He then put out his hand and shook mine, looked me dead in the eye, and with a calming sort of warmth in his voice, said, "I want to wish you the best of luck with whatever you do in your future." I'll never forget that; he said it with such sincerity.

I will treasure those few moments for the rest of my life.