Oscar Peterson - piano; Ray Brown - bass; Louis Hayes - drums
Without a doubt Canada's greatest jazz star, Oscar Peterson was a virtuoso of the highest order whose sheer command and dazzling facility on the piano was often compared to the immortal Art Tatum. A gentle man from Montreal, Peterson was a favorite on the Jazz at the Philharmonic circuit during the late '40s and early '50s. He later established an exquisite chemistry with the world-class rhythm tandem of bassist Ray Brown and drummer Ed Thigpen, his working trio from 1959 through 1965. Together they made several classy recordings for the Verve label, including successful Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Rodgers & Hart songbooks.
At his Fourth of July appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival, opening for headliner Frank Sinatra with the Count Basie Orchestra, Peterson was joined by his longtime bassist and rhythmic anchor Brown and the aggressively swinging Detroit hard bop drummer Louis Hayes, who had only recently replaced Thigpen in the trio following a six-year tenure with the Cannonball Adderley Quintet. They kick off their set with a rousing rendition of Milt Jackson's up-tempo jam "Reunion Blues" before settling into Billy Taylor's mid-tempo groover "Easy Walker," which is a good description of Brown's bass playing on this relaxed number. "You Look Good To Me" by composer Clement Wells is a classically influenced piece that sounds like a swinging rendition of a Bach fugue. It is fueled by Hayes' expert brushwork and also features some beautiful arco work by bassist Brown. The trio closes with Brown's boppish romp "Up There," a tune originally recorded by tenor saxophonist Teddy Edwards and trumpeter Howard McGhee for their 1951 Contemporary recording, Together Again! (which also featured Phineas Newborn on piano, Ed Thigpen on drums and Brown on bass). This burning closer shows off Peterson's fabled chops in full flight, bringing their set at Freebody Park to an exhilarating finale.
Throughout his illustrious career, Peterson was called the "Maharaja of the keyboard" by Duke Ellington, "O.P." by his friends and was widely regarded a member of jazz royalty. In Canada -- where he received many honorary doctorate degrees, was made an Officer of the Order of Canada (the country's highest civilian order for talent and service), was a member of the Order of Ontario and had schools and concert halls named after him -- he was generally regarded as a distinguished public figure as well as a legendary figure in jazz history. Peterson released over 200 recordings, won seven Grammy Awards, received other numerous awards and honors, and played thousands of live concerts to audiences all over the world in a career lasting more than 65 years. This particular Independence Day in 1965 at Newport captures the legendary pianist at the peak of his powers.
Born on August 15, 1925 in the poor, predominantly black neighborhood of Little Burgundy in Montreal, Peterson began playing piano at age five and by age nine had already mastered several classical pieces as well as ragtime and boogie woogie numbers. In 1940, at age 14, he won a national music competition organized by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and soon after dropped out of school to become a professional pianist, working for a weekly radio show while also playing at hotels and music halls around Montreal. In 1949, his career got a big boost when impresario Norman Granz introduced Peterson at a Jazz at the Philharmonic show at New York's Carnegie Hall. He subsequently recorded several brilliant duo and trio recordings for Granz's Clef, Norgran and Verve labels and through his many Jazz at the Philharmonic engagements was able to play with many major jazz artists of the day, including Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Lester Young, Buddy Rich, Milt Jackson, Barney Kessel, Louis Armstrong, Stéphane Grappelli, Ella Fitzgerald, Clark Terry, Joe Pass, Anita O'Day, Fred Astaire, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz.
In the 1970s, Peterson formed another landmark trio with virtuoso guitarist Joe Pass and Danish bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen (which emulated the success of Peterson's 1950s trio with guitarist Herb Ellis and bassist Ray Brown. Through the 1970s, he participated in several all-star sessions for Granz's new label, Pablo Records with the likes of Count Basie, Roy Eldridge, Zoot Sims, Joe Pass, Clark Terry, Freddie Hubbard, Benny Carter, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Harry "Sweets" Edison and Dizzy Gillespie. In the 1980s, he played successfully in a duo with pianist Herbie Hancock. Following a stroke in 1993, Peterson returned to pubic performances on a limited basis beginning in 1995 and also made several live trio recordings for the Telarc label. In 1997, he received a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement and an International Jazz Hall of Fame Award. In 1999, he joined forces with longtime friends and colleagues Ray Brown on bass and Milt Jackson on vibraphones for the Telarc recording The Very Tall Band: Live at the Blue Note. His last recording, 2004's A Night in Vienna, was released on Verve and featured guitarist Ulf Wakenius, bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pederson and drummer Martin Drew. Peterson died of kidney failure on December 23, 2007. (Bill Milkowski)