Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Canadian Jazz Icons to be Celebrated for Their Legacy

By Neil Armstrong

Photo contributed            Oscar Peterson

Photo contributed          Oliver Jones

Two Canadian jazz icons will be honoured at a special concert to mark Canada’s 150th birthday and the 20th anniversary of the Living Arts Centre in Mississauga, Ontario in December.

“Oscar Peterson and Oliver Jones: A Celebration” will bring several musicians together on one stage, including legendary jazz pianist, Monty Alexander; JUNO and Emmy Award winner, D.D. Jackson; Montreal Jazz Festival grand jazz award winner, Robi Botos; Marc Cary, and several others at the Living Arts Centre on December 9.

Peterson died in 2007 at the age of 82, Jones is 83 and retired in 2016.

“It’s really about the legacy. It’s a Canadian story that I don’t think is told quite often enough,” says Frank Francis of Caliban Arts Theatre who is the artistic director of the event.

Speaking from his home in New York, Alexander says he is delighted to have been invited to honour Peterson and Jones, “two incredible pianists, with Oscar Peterson being a total icon of history in music.”

While playing in New York in the 1960s, Alexander went to a club to see Peterson, “the master pianist and one of the greatest” perform.

“I saw him play and it was beyond anything you’d see. He carried a presence and was a great artist with power and yet such elegance at the same time. And certainly that affected me in a grand way.”

The Canadian pianist introduced Alexander to MPS -- a company that he recorded with -- and told them that they should record him. As a result of Peterson’s recommendation, Alexander ended up making several albums in Villingen, Germany.

“He carried a world of how this thing can go when you sit at a piano and own it. When you play the piano you own it. Every note you play is an extension of who you are, what you are. I always felt that from the first time I sat at a piano I just felt that this piano was my friend.”

Alexander, a Jamaican, said there was a kinship that he shared with Peterson and Jones because of their West Indian heritage.

Both of the Canadian pianists were born in Little Burgundy, Montreal. Peterson’s parents were from St. Kitts and the British Virgin Islands, and Jones’ were from Barbados.

He said there was a close camaraderie between Peterson and Jones, who he didn’t know that well.

 “This was a man from on top of the mountain,” he said comparing Peterson to Usain Bolt and Muhammad Ali.

He said Peterson was a generous man filled with a lot of humour and he will play something to reflect on what he meant to him.

Photo contributed      Monty Alexander

Ron Westray, Oscar Peterson Chair in Jazz Performance at York University, says he’s very excited to be the musical director for “anything, all things Oscar Peterson” because “we don’t see enough of these.”

He says this is an opportunity to remind people of what they have here in Canada.

Westray, an American jazz trombonist who has been living in Canada for eight years and has been the holder of the Chair since it was created, says these are great musicians so he will kind of oversee their conceptualization of the material.

“These are guys who are conceptual musicians so my idea became more of a research idea. Get the raw materials ready for them, get the scores ready for them – Oscar’s scores – and allow them to interpret these movements in a way that they normally handle their music.”

Westray says the musicians seem okay with his approach.

He is the creator of an outreach program called the Oscar Peterson Jazz Mobile -- a traveling unit that goes around to area schools that don’t have the resources and expose them to jazz live concerts.

Francis says the musicians “are all sort of students of Peterson.”

“They’ve all sort of been inspired and influenced by him one way or another,” said Francis, noting that Dave Young, bassist, who played with Peterson and Jones will also be on the bill.

He said Jones was closely related to Peterson because they were both child prodigies and went to the same church in Montreal. Their families were relatively close, he said, and Jones was kind of Peterson’s little brother.

“But he is a giant, and I think while he’s here I figured he might be retired but while he’s here we should actually also acknowledge him. He doesn’t necessarily need to play but he needs to know that he’s remembered.”

Jones will be presented with the Living Arts Centre Lifetime Achievement Award.

Francis describes it as a mini-festival with four acts -- “So, you’re in for a treat. Everyone will tell their story a little bit differently so it won’t be the same right across. Everyone will have their moment to say what they want to say. I think that’s important.”

He said one of the things that is inspiring about this story is that typically when people think of jazz, they think of African Americans, but here are two incredible African Canadian men “who are actually coming out of the Caribbean and sort of make their way onto the scene the way that they have.”

“It’s really to speak to the African Canadian impact on this country as we celebrate Canada’s 150th,” says Francis.

Natalie Lue, CEO of the Living Arts Centre, says the event represents “the finest assembling of jazz talent ever on the main stage at the Living Arts Centre.”

Meanwhile, Kelly Peterson, Oscar’s widow, is looking forward to the celebration of both men.

“It’s wonderful to have them honoured together. Oliver has always been an encouraging voice for younger artists just as Oscar was, so I think it is especially appropriate that this special evening will include not only the statesman of jazz, Monty Alexander, but also the younger voices who are the future of this marvelous music.”

The program will feature a mix of primordial music written by Peterson and Jones and original material written by the three generations of artists who will be performing. 

Tickets can be purchased by visiting the Living Arts Centre's web page,, and by phone through its Box Office at 905-306-6000

[This story has been published in the NA Weekly Gleaner, Nov. 30-Dec. 6, 2017.]                                                                

1 comment: