There are some musicians who are so accomplished that the amateurs and aspiring pros among us listen to them and despair of even trying to have a music career because we’ll never be that good. For Oscar Peterson, it was listening to the astonishing speed and nimbleness of Art Tatum’s piano playing that nearly made him give up trying to have a career in jazz; fortunately, after a couple months, Peterson reconsidered and went on to have one of the most celebrated careers in jazz, one whose nearly seven-decade run ended with his death at age 82 on Sunday. For most every other keyboardist who’s dreamed of playing jazz piano, it was Peterson’s dazzling, near-Tatum-like technique that made them dream of giving up the ivories for good. (Even as renowned a pianist as Herbie Hancock nearly threw in the towel after this piano duel with Peterson.)
Others will write more eloquently about Peterson’s passing over the next few days. It’s hard for the fumbling fingers of this amateur jazz pianist to type words in this post that will explain Peterson’s greatness. Instead, I’ll hook you up with these YouTube clips of Peterson in concert, which will give you chills. First, check out Peterson with his legendary 1950s trio, here and here. (Also here, as Peterson role model Nat King Cole and sax legend Coleman Hawkins sit in.) Here he is in 1977, showing off a left hand so strong that he didn’t need a drummer to provide percussion. Here he is backing Ella Fitzgerald in 1980, showing that he could pull sideman duty as well as bandleading. And here’s a 1985 performance of “Caravan” that comes rumbling at you like a train before it flattens you in its tracks. Listen to it all, let it wash over you, and despair of the notion that you or I or anyone else will ever be this good.