“Oscar Peterson – Simply The Best”

op.jpegA free-admission memorial concert for Oscar Peterson was held at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto this past Saturday, January 12. People began queuing up before dawn, and when the show began shortly after 4pm, I dare say that all 2,630 seats were full and hundreds of fans had been turned away. John and I were among the privileged.

The presentation, titled “Oscar Peterson – Simply the Best,” was broadcast on Canadian Radio, and I’m told that streaming audio will soon be posted online. Canadian television host and journalist Valerie Pringle was mistress of ceremonies and she set the stage, so to speak, for listeners at home. First she described the huge video-projected picture of smiling Oscar looking down from center stage — his smile was remarked upon by almost everyone who spoke. Then she identified the lonely piano set off to the side, stage right, as Oscar’s Bösendorfer, and next to it a huge poster of Oscar waving to an audience with one hand, while his other hand held tight to the hand of his then five-year-old daughter Celine.

While many jazz fans maybe aware of Oscar’s humanitarian interests and fierce beliefs in justice and equality, many might be surprised at how many political friends he had. These people were not just fans, they were actually break-bread friends of long-standing. Oscar was a Companion of the Order of Canada and a member of the Order of Ontario, the most prestigious official honour in the province given in recognition of the highest level of individual excellence and achievement. Two friends, who were also fellow members of The Order, on hand to speak eloquently in memory of Oscar were The Hon. Bob Rae, former Premier of Ontario, and Phil Nimmons, Canadian jazz clarinetist, composer, bandleader, and Director Emeritus of Jazz Studies at Univ of Toronto.

I’m not well-versed in Canadian protocol, but I’m pretty sure that the highest-ranking official on stage was Haiti-born Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, Governor General and Commander-in-Chief of Canada, flanked by a uniformed attendant who escorted her on stage, placed her papers on the podium and stood behind her at attention until she concluded her remarks which were lengthy and alternated between English and French, then he gathered her papers and followed her off stage.

Quincy Jones reminisced lovingly of his early days and antics with Oscar, and the audio taped message from Stevie Wonder was sweet, but perhaps the most touching verbal tribute was given by Oscar’s youngest daughter Celine, now a poised young lady of 16. She spoke of her dad as only a daughter can, remembering the giggles he could evoke from her by donning her high-heeled shoes and an item or two of her apparel, and reliving her myriad travels abroad as she joined Oscar on tour, eating the best foreign foods and hanging with dad and his friends after concerts, long past-bedtime and into the wee hours of the morning.

The first music to be heard on the program was from Oscar himself — a video clip of the Oscar Peterson Trio with Niels Henning Oersted Pedersen on bass and Ulf Wakenius on guitar. Surely a tough act to follow, but the quartet with Monty Alexander (piano), Ulf Wakenius, Dave Young (bass) and Jeff Hamilton (drums) truly rocked the house.

Other musicians paying tribute include Hilary Kole (singer billed as Oscar’s protégé), Audrey Morris, a jazz balladeer from Chicago, and Montreal entertainer Gregory Charles. Herbie Hancock wished Oscar well on his next voyage and serenaded him on his way with a solo meditation on “Maiden Voyage.” Nancy Wilson, accompanied by Monty Alexander, sang “Goodbye” (Gordon Jenkins):

I’ll never forget you
I’ll never forget you
I’ll never forget how we promised one day
To love one another forever that way
We said we’d never say

Nobody who I have ever loved has left,” Nancy said. “They are always here.”

The tribute ended with a Oscar’s “Hymn to Freedom” featuring renowned soprano Measha Brueggergosman with the combined forces of the Faith Chorale, the Nathanial Dett Chorale and the University of Toronto Gospel choir all under the direction of pianist and CBC Radio host Andrew Craig.

Although I never felt that I knew Oscar well, I did have slightly more than a passing acquaintance and I was especially honored when he asked me to write the liner notes for the recording of his commission “Trail of Dreams: A Canadian Suite.”

There is an identifiable Oscar Peterson sound, recognizable but not categorizable. His original style does not fall easily into any specific idiom and he likes it that way. “I just do what I do and I don’t categorize myself in one category or another.” He is even reluctant to accept the title of composer. “Well I don’t pretend to be Berlioz or Haydn or Ellington,” he demurs…

I was not on hand when the suite premiered on April 11, 2000 in Roy Thompson Hall, but it felt fitting that I was there, in that very same concert hall, to pay my respects.

Poetry and Jazz

Jazz And The Poet Laureate is the title of Mr. Rifftides’ piece today. I happen to be in Toronto this weekend with two poets who, as jazz lovers, have put their passions not only on the page, but into action. As poets, each has written about and been inspired by jazz, but beyond their talents as poets, their love of jazz has led them to contribute greatly to the lifeblood of jazz and so I wish to call Dana Gioia and A.B. Spellman to your attention.

A February 2003 headline in the San Francisco Chronicle read: “Who Is Dana Gioia? He’s a poet, a businessman, a Northern Californian and President Bush’s choice to head the National Endowment for the Arts.” Now, in his second term as Chairman of the NEA, Dana continues to elevate jazz, expanding the Jazz Masters program in his quest to make it equal to the prestige of the pulitzer prize. (Our good friend Terry Teachout, as a member of he National Council on the Arts, is well acquainted with Chairman Gioia.) Dana is an award-winning poet, essayist, critic, and author, and his poems have been set to music by numerous composers, from classical to rock. I asked Dana about this and he mentioned Dave Brubeck as one of those composers and also spoke of a joint performance he did in New York with Chico Hamilton. On his web site you will find his bio along with many links to poems, and excerpts from his works and interviews.

I met A.B. a few years ago through the jazz masters program but I did not know a lot about his background. A little web research yielded the following:

For thirty years A.B. Spellman was “a guiding force in the continuation and expansion of the NEA Jazz Masters program” and the NEA Jazz Master award given for Jazz Advocacy is now given in his name. He is an author, poet, critic, and lecturer. He was a poet-in-residence at Morehouse College, in Atlanta, Ga. He taught various courses in African-American culture; offered courses in modern poetry, creative writing, and jazz at Emory, Rutgers, and Harvard Universities. Spellman is an occasional television and radio commentator. He offered reviews and commentaries on National Public Radio’s Jazz Riffs series, including the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library program. Mr. Spellman is a graduate of Howard University. read more

And from the History Makers website:

In 1966, Spellman’s writing career took off when he published his first full-length book, Four Lives in the Bee-Bop Business, an in-depth look at the lives of jazz musicians Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Herbie Nichols and Jackie McLean. The following year, Spellman joined a group of black poets touring the nation’s historically black colleges. From 1968 until 1969, he worked as a political essayist and poet for Rhythm Magazine, and in 1969, Spellman conducted a lecture series throughout the country teaching at various colleges including Morehouse, Emory and Rutgers. read more

Here’s a brief excerpt from A.B.’s poem titled After Vallejo

…when you come for me come singing
no dirge, but scat my eulogy in bebop
code. sing that i died among gods
but lived with no god & did not suffer
for it. find one true poem that i made
& sing it to my shade as it fades
into the wind. sing it presto, in 4/4 time
in the universal ghetto key of b flat…

And here on the NEA web site you will find links to audio of his reading of After Vallejo and his remarks to the National Council on the Arts in March 2005.

These two gentlemen are well worth knowing; they have done immeasurable good for the world of jazz and in support of jazz musicians in America.

A New Year’s Meditation

Beginnings, or the oft-used redundant phrase “new beginnings” holds the promise of the future, or so we’d like to think. We all fall prey. For many it takes the form of New Year resolutions. For me, the craziness crescendos in December when I catalog all those things that I’ve been meaning to do and now ‘must do’ before the year ends. I spend most of the last month in a mad rush trying to tie-up all of all those loose ends and never succeed. It’s not that I’m disorganized, I do have lists, and they are highly categorized and prioritized. But, as the saying goes, “life gets in the way.” And it strikes me, year after year, that there is something profoundly wrong with the very notion that ‘life gets in the way.”

Life is the way, or so the magnet on my refrigerator tells me:

Every day is a gift. That’s why it’s called the Present.

Perhaps it’s paraphrase from the quote attributed to Babatunde Olatunjia the Nigerian drummer, educator, social activist and recording artist:

Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. And today? Today is a gift. That’s why we call it the present.

Anyway, here is a sampling of some of the things that I did not get done in he past:

* put away my summer clothes

* finish the blog journal of November’s cruise

* write reviews (or, more accurately for me, my impressions) of the pile of CDs sent to me, unsolicited, by hopeful publicists and artists seeking exposure

* work those the Linked-In connections

* follow-up on pitch letters to agents and publishers

* send out Christmas cards

* enter writing contests and submit pieces to literary journals

We all know that we are powerless. How do we know? Well there’s that old, supposedly Yiddish, proverb, “We Plan, God Laughs.” I say supposedly because I’ve seen evidence of it’s multicultural and multidenominational use — by a Baptist minister and a female reverend’s easter sermon to name just two. It’s derivation is likely the Biblical verse found in Psalm 33:10:

“The LORD brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples.”

But, nevertheless. we continue to make plans.

These are not new thoughts to me, and I’ve said as much before. On October 3rd in my Now, In A Million Years post I mentioned an interest in Zen or Buddhist philosophy. I have yet to find time to take a class, but I have done a little more research and my six New Year resolutions are based on the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism (“the way to the cessation of suffering”)

1. To speak truthfully, without exaggerations, and never hurtfully.

2. Avoid any and all harmful actions

3. Ensure that my livelihood does no harm, to myself or to others; directly or indirectly.

4. Make an effort to improve

5. Focus on seeing things for what they are and with clear consciousness

6. Be more aware of the present, internal and external, and accept it. (No more wishing it were otherwise.)

If you’re wondering why six and not all eight, it’s because the last two (Right Understanding and Right Thoughts) are still too abstract for me. Here’s a Wikipedia link for those who are curious.

To quote another refrigerator magnet, “Life’s a journey. not a destination.” Perhaps you recognize that thought from your own refrigerator magnet collection, or from Aerosmith’s lyrics to Amazing. Or maybe you recall the words of Aldous Huxley:

The spiritual journey does not consist in arriving at a new destination where a person gains what he did not have, or becomes what he is not. It consists in the dissipation of one’s own ignorance concerning one’s self and life, and the gradual growth of that understanding which begins the spiritual awakening.

I came across a number of other apropos quotations; here are a few:

If you wait for tomorrow, tomorrow comes. If you don’t wait for tomorrow, tomorrow comes. ~Senegalese Proverb

One of the most tragic things I know about human nature is that all of us tend to put off living. We are all dreaming of some magical rose garden over the horizon – instead of enjoying the roses that are blooming outside our windows today. ~Dale Carnegie

We are always getting ready to live but never living. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Let us not look back in anger, nor forward in fear, but around in awareness. ~James Thurber

So today I begin my quest. I can’t bring peace to the world, but I can bring peace to myself. It’s too late to send out Christmas cards and there’s no point in putting those clothes away when I’ll just have to take them out again in a couple of months. I’ll start this year by simply deleting items from the list. Hmmm, maybe I can just delete the list itself.

Wishing you all peace and serenity in the New Year.