Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 21, No. 2, 2022
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Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
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Louis René Beres
Nick Catalano
Chris Barry
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the greatest



Nick Catalano is a TV writer/producer and Professor of Literature and Music at Pace University. He reviews books and music for several journals and is the author of Clifford Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter, New York Nights: Performing, Producing and Writing in Gotham , A New Yorker at Sea,, Tales of a Hamptons Sailor and his most recent book, Scribble from the Apple. For Nick's reviews, visit his website: www.nickcatalano.n


I don't believe that a lot of the things I hear on the air today
are going to be played for as long a time
as Coleman Hawkins records or Brahms concertos.
Oscar Peterson

In his well-storied career, Oscar Peterson had a ton of memorable appearances in NYC beginning in the 40s with his association with producer Norman Granz. But none were more celebrated and publicized than a multi-Grammy winning stint at the Blue Note in 1990. Recorded live by Telarc, the sessions resulted in a 4 album issue of a reunion with guitarist Herb Ellis and bassist Ray Brown. These albums set a high standard for jazz musicians who were moving to New York in droves. New clubs were opening, new music schools were filling up rapidly with international students who wanted to hang with Miles Davis; and Jazz at Lincoln Center had opened its doors ushering into the city a jazz naissance that the music had never had.

During this time I was teaching literature and music at a local university, directing choral groups and musicals, coaching football, writing books and producing all the arts (opera, ballet, comedy, lectures, jazz concerts etc.) as the University’s Performing Arts director. I also found time to write about jazz for several magazines. In this capacity I was inundated as were the other four or five NYC critics by hordes of musicians who needed ink for their new CDs, club appearances and media interviews.

So . . . one week in March 1990 Oscar Peterson came to town to record several live performances at the Blue Note. The city was abuzz with news of the legend’s return, and, as I drove, I slowed down in my car in front of the club and smiled as I saw movers struggling with the huge Bosendorfer grand that Peterson always required. Nevertheless, I continued on because, darn it, I was so busy that week that I might not be able to get to see Oscar. I had promised several musicians appearing at other rooms that I’d stop in and write some reviews at the end of the week which came in a flash.

Finally, only one night remained to get to the Blue Note but when I looked at my schedule I muttered “hell.” Still, I hoped for the best. In the early a.m. I did a lecture on how Plautus had influenced The Comedy of Errors followed by my Ancient Greece seminar. After I taught an afternoon class on Keats’ drama I rushed out to the football field for a meeting on some new zone defenses. Then I conducted sectional rehearsals for the chorale and segued to direct the second act of Guys and Dolls -- the spring musical.

After the long day at the University I drove to mid-town and with considerable effort I parked the car next to Birdland while scarfing a slice of pizza. When I did reviews I always told the performers that I could only stay for three tunes if it had to be a night of multiple reviews. The music was fine at Birdland; soon I found myself flying down to Greenwich village and parked next to The Vanguard. As I got to my press seat I realized I hadn’t slept well and had just finished a 16/hour day. This next review would be it -- I was exhausted. “No Oscar tonight,” I moaned.

As I drove home, somehow, I found myself slowing down in front of the Blue Note. ”No way,” I thought, but pulled to the curb. “The hell with it.” I’m sure I was so tired that I was impolitely abrupt as I showed my press pass to a Maître d' I hadn’t seen before. I half slid, half fell on to my usual press seat.

Oscar was playfully running through some changes as he joked with patrons seated in front.

Born in Montreal in 1925, Oscar Peterson had by 1990 established a jazz reputation second to none. Heavily trained in classical music he had had teachers whose pedigree could be traced back to Franz Liszt. By age nine he had established a 4-6 hour per day practice schedule and had begun to perform professionally. At 14 he won the national music competition organized by the CBC, and, captivated by traditional jazz, played in bands with Maynard Ferguson and Johnny Holmes; he also starred in a weekly radio show. When he met Norman Granz in 1949 who was having great success with his Jazz at the Philharmonic series, Peterson quickly became a mainstay. The series proved to be the most successful in the history of the music up to that point and Peterson soon became a major jazz headliner.. In the next few years he made scores of top selling recordings and, with Granz as his manager, embarked on a career that established him as a household name in jazz.

Because of his enormous talent, and not the least because of Granz’s producing genius, by 1990 and legendary Blue Note shows, his place in the jazz hall of fame was secure.

But there was more to come.

In the years immediately prior to the Blue Note show, I had come to know Oscar pretty well; I had written about several of his appearances, and had long begun to appreciate the considerable talents he had outside of jazz. In addition to scores of musical honours, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien had offered him the position of Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario.

So . . . I sat at the Blue Note that rainy night in March, ordered some food, struggled with fatigue from all of the aforementioned disparate activities, and swore I would stay for only two tunes even though the personnel were a formidable group of jazz icons that Oscar had recorded and performed with for decades: guitarist Herb Ellis, bassist Ray Brown, and, added for this recorded live performance, drummer Bobby Durham.

After the emcee intros, the group launched into “Honeysuckle Rose,” the standard that every pop music lover has heard a thousand times. But almost immediately, the tune sounded new and different; the key to the novelty lay in the canny improvisational departures from the standard chord changes. Obviously, improvs were expected after the 32 bar theme. But what followed could only be described as explosive variations on the variations. Led by Peterson’s amazing right hand lines, humorous 4, 8, and whole chorus trades with Ellis, and intriguing harmonic lines from Brown, the entire room began to swing. Even staid first-nighters who often prefer conversation to focused listening, were toe-tapping and finger popping all over the place. I had seen and heard Peterson many times, but what was happening on the Blue Note stage on this March evening transcended past performances. The music certainly dissipated most of my fatigue. I gazed around the room and chuckled at the hypnosis Peterson had infused on the patrons.

After another medium swing tune dubbed “Sushi” that featured beguiling chromatic adventures, Oscar launched a 2-tune ballad medley with “I Remember You”/ “Tenderly.” Throughout, he referenced the melodic lines with double and triple time sequences that had not been heard since the iconic Art Tatum days. No one else had ever attempted these runs that sounded like there were three or four pianists on stage playing the feverish tempi.

By the time this medley was over, I found myself frustrated. Oscar simply would not let me go home to bed. It had become a historic evening.

Peterson rarely employed a drummer in his small groups for the simple reason that, as was the case with Art Tatum, few percussionists could keep up with their speed and spacing. But with the light speed performance of “Sweet Georgia Brown” I understood why Oscar had brought Bobby Durham along for the 4-week stint, first at the Tokyo Blue Note and then here in Gotham. Durham’s time was flawless and his solo was stage shattering. “Sweet Georgia Brown” began with Peterson improvising changes on the verse of the tune and then trading sequences, still on the verse, with Ellis. They playfully continued the trades and because the exchanges were so imaginative this went on and on until Peterson finally jumped into the melody line. Throughout, the articulation of the group performing at light speed was astounding. If this were the only song performed on this magical night, the show would still have been historic.

By the end of the set, adrenalin had dissipated much of my fatigue so that I trekked up to the dressing room to join the throng of well-wishers. After a hug and a handshake, I searched for some superlative phrases to express my amazement at the performance. Oscar and I laughed a bit as I said the recording would sell forever.

This astonishing performance occurred 30 years ago and the Telarc recording of this singular Blue Note event is still in demand.



reader comment
Not surprisingly, here again women are absent from the history books. In future writings about Oscar Peterson please mention the person who first taught him piano and encouraged him to perfect his craft; his big sister Daisy Sweeney. No Daisy, no Oscar.
Nick, you did it again. A superlative review of a superlative performance!

Beautifully elucidated narrative, as usual. Always a pleasure to read your work.

Susan Steiger
Nice work Nick - wish I had been there.



By Nick Catalano:
Faith, Emotion and Superstition versus Reason, Logic and Science
Thinking: A Lost Art
Alternative Approaches to Learning
Aesthetic History and Chronicled Fact
Terror in China: Cultural Erasure and Computer Genocide
The Roller Coaster of Democracy
And Justice for All
Costly Failures in American Higher Education
Trump and the Dumbing Down of the American Presidency
Language as the Enemy of Truth
Opportunity in Quarantine
French Music: Impressionism & Beyond
D-Day at Normandy: A Recollection Pt. II
D-Day at Normandy: A Recollection Pt. I
Kenneth Branagh & Shakespeare
Remembering Maynard Ferguson
Reviewers & Reviewing
The Vagaries of Democracy
Racism Debunked
The Truth Writer
#Me Too Cognizance in Ancient Greece
Above the Drowning Sea
A New York Singing Salon
Rockers Retreading
Polish Jewry-Importance of Historical Museums
Sexual Relativity and Gender Revolution
Inquiry into Constitutional Originalism
Aristotle: Film Critic
The Maw of Deregulated Capitalism
Demagogues: The Rhetoric of Barbarism
The Guns of August
Miles Ahead and Born to Be Blue
Manon Lescaut @The Met
An American in Paris
What We Don't Know about Eastern Culture
Black Earth (book review)
Cuban Jazz
HD Opera - Game Changer
Film Treatment of Stolen Art
Stains and Blemishes in Democracy
Intersteller (film review)
Shakespeare, Shelley & Woody Allen
Mystery and Human Sacrifice at the Parthenon
Carol Fredette (Jazz)
Amsterdam (book review)
Vermeer Nation
The Case for Da Vinci's Demons


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