In this week’s episode of Classical in Conversation, we’re diving in to the life and times of one of history’s greatest jazz pianists, Mr Oscar Peterson.

The Beginning

Born in Montreal, Canada, Peterson’s parents were immigrants from the West Indies. Growing up in a predominantly black neighbourhood was where he found jazz and fell in love with it from a young age. He started learning how to play the trumpet, but after a pretty bad spell of tuberculosis, he had to give up on that dream! Instead, he focused his energy into learning the piano. Little did he know, this would be the beginning of a 60 year long career of incredible playing.

Like many exceptional pianists, Oscar Peterson started out training classically, playing pieces by Rachmaninoff and, of course, the preludes and fugues by Johann Sebastian Bach, which seem to be a staple in being a technical player! By age 9, Peterson was playing with a level of control that even the most seasoned piano professionals were impressed by.

As his career progressed, he played in a variety of duos, trios and quartets, alongside some of the biggest names in jazz like Count Basie and Herbie Hancock. He would win Grammy’s as part of these groups, and even performed in the interval at the Eurovision Song Contest of 1978.


But one of Oscar Peterson’s biggest inspirations was a guy called Art Tatum, another heavyweight in the world of jazz piano. Tatum’s technical abilities were quite literally off the scale (pardon the pun), and this left many musicians either wanting to play just like him, or feeling extremely intimidated by him, and Mr Peterson was certainly in this camp! Thankfully not so much that it made him want to quit, but Peterson did say that “Tatum scared me to death”! The two became good friends although that level of intimidation never quite went away for Peterson, and he’d rarely be seen playing in the presence of Tatum. It’s somewhat reassuring to know that even the best of the best compare themselves to others!

We’ve included this seven-time Grammy-winning legend in the RSL Classical Piano Grade 6 syllabus because, well, how could we not?! His “Jazz Exercise No. 2” should be a key piece for any high level pianist out there. In fact, Peterson was a keen composer, writing over 300 original jazz compositions in his lifetime, and lots of these are now used in music education.

We’ve created a short video walkthrough of this fantastic piece so you can pick up some tips on how to swing like Oscar Peterson himself. Watch the video below!

Oscar was so legendary that he was famously called the “Maharaja of the Keyboard” by none other than Duke Ellington, and was widely known amongst the jazz community as the “King of Inside Swing”. He was certainly loved and valued in the world of jazz, and continues to be of great influence today. We love the O.P!

If you enjoyed learning a bit more about him today, do have a look at some of our other blogs featuring jazzy artists like Nikki Iles, Scott Joplin and Valerie Capers.