By Taylor Jordan
Quincy Jones calls him "one of the greatest musicians on the planet."
Historians, critics and aficionados agree he is the greatest living jazz pianist and historically second only to Art Tatum, the man who played 12,000 notes in one minute and master musicians reverently proclaimed "God is in the house" when Tatum entered a room.
The living manifestation of the Tatum style and the man who developed a distinctively recognizable style surpassing all others on the piano is Oscar Peterson. And for the first time in 16 years, Peterson plays the Monterey Jazz Festival.
Closing the five-concert, three day run of the world's longest continuously running jazz festival with a Sunday night arena show that includes another legendary Octogenarian, Dave Brubeck, Peterson promises to be the highlight of the solid weekend of extraordinary music presented by Verizon Sept. 15, 16, and 17 on the Monterey County fairgrounds.
This writer has three words of advice: Don't miss it.
Monterey, ranked the third best in the world and the best in North and South American and the Caribbean, offers a powerful mix of legendary artists and a potpourri of talented performers vying for their respective places in the annals of jazz history.
Tickets for arena packages, starting at $190 for the five shows Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights and Saturday and Sunday afternoon on the Jimmy Lyons Stage, and the grounds only tickets starting at $30 are still available. Information and tickets: www.montrealjazzfestival.org
Besides Peterson, the arena lineup includes Kurt Elling with special guests the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra premiering "Red Man-Black Man," the Yellowjackets with guitarist guest Robben Ford and Richard Bona, Friday night; Bonnie Raitt, Keb'Mo' and the McCollough Sons of Thunder at the Saturday afternoon blues show; and McCoy Tyner Trio with guest vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson and trumpeter Roy Hargrove, vocalist Dianne Reeves and master saxophonist Charles Lloyd playing Saturday under the stars.
Elling, the festival's 2006 artist-in-residence serving as musical mentor to talented teens drawn from throughout the United States and Canada, will perform Sunday afternoon with the Monterey Jazz Festival Next Generation Jazz Orchestra, the festival's all-star teen band. The Sunday afternoon program also presents Chris Botti.
The Sunday night finale features Peterson and, performing the MJF commissioned work "Cannery Row Suite" with special guests, the Dave Brubeck Quartet.
Peterson is an international cultural icon and, a native of Montreal, the premier jazz artist of Canada. He has won nine Hall of Fame awards, eight Grammys and was the first living artist Canada produced a commemorative postal stamp for in honor of his countless contributions to jazz in particular and culture in general. He was the first jazz musician to win the Glenn Gould Prize, an international award for exceptional contribution to music, and has also been honored with the International Association for Jazz Education's President's Award for extraordinary contributions to jazz education and the Distinguished Canadian Leadership Award.
At age 81, Peterson has outlived many of the mainstream artists who took jazz to the world and made it one of the planet's most popular and significant art forms. Among those who performed at Monterey in 1990, when he last played the festival, were Dizzy Gillespie, John Lee Hooker, Stan Getz, Joe Williams, Stanley Turrentine, Tito Puente, Tee Carson and Bill Berry.
He was born Aug. 15, 1925 in Montreal, the fourth of five children. A child prodigy, he started studying and playing piano and trumpet when he was little more than a toddler. After falling ill with tuberculosis at age 6, he abandoned the trumpet and concentrated on the piano. He won a Canadian Broadcasting Company contest at age 14 and became the adolescent star of the weekly show "15 Minutes' Piano Rambling."
Peterson played extensively at Montreal clubs and community functions as well as for live radio broadcasts. It was through the latter that he came to the attention of Norman Granz, the legendary producer and promoter, when Granz was organizing his now famous Jazz at the Philharmonic series and doing jazz concerts at Carnegie Hall. He offered Peterson "the chance to find out how good you are" by booking him on the first Carnegie Hall jazz concert on Sept. 18, 1949.
Peterson was more than good. He was extraordinary. His peerless performance prompted Granz to put him on the Jazz at the Philharmonic tour with Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Joe Pass, Ray Brown and Herb Ellis. His meteoric rise to the top of the jazz world has been sustained for six decades and lasted even through serious health challenges in recent years.
Peterson has mentored young artists of all ages, including elementary school students, offering instruction and assistance to encourage their development and talent.
In a Jazz Education Journal article, Dr. Herb Wong wrote about Peterson and his trio – which included drummer Louis Hayes and bassist Sam Jones at that time – taking part in "one of jazz history's earliest and unconventional jazz education events with some 600 kindergarten to sixth-grade children" at Berkeley's Washington Elementary School, a laboratory and demonstration school linked with UC Berkeley.
The program was lauded by jazz critics Phil Elwood and Ralph Gleason who co-founded Monterey Jazz Festival with jazz disc jockey Jimmy Lyons. The 1966 program evolved into a jazz instrumental program that included elementary, middle and senior high students and helped developed the talents of such contemporary artists as Benny Green, Rodney Franklin and Joshua Redman. Green has recorded and performed with Peterson and, stemming from his days with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, is now considered one of the best pianists in jazz.