Going into this book I knew who Oscar Peterson was, where he came from, and what kind of music he played. I’m not a big jazz fan, but it’s hard not to admire the way he plays the piano. However, I didn’t know anything else about his life, so I am glad to have had the opportunity to read this – it sent me on a google hunt to learn more about Oscar’s life.
The parts of the book I most enjoyed involved Oscar and his family; before he moves away and starts touring the world. The family in the book, of course, is fictional, but it’s interesting to read about how the author decided to interpret some of the characters and events the way he did. For example, there are magical elements in his storytelling, like how the weather stays fine when Oscar’s brother Brad plays the piano and goes cloudy and rainy when he stops. And Oscar’s mother Davina has the ability to read into the future, giving her character a larger role in the story than she might have had otherwise. Oscar tries to make what he can of all this, but in the end, he has to follow his own instincts.
His playing was a masterly succession of furious descents and chortling returns, culminating, against all expectations, in a sense of renewal and a rejuvenating optimism.
If for no other reason, read this book for the descriptions of music and the jazz scenes of the 1920s through to the 50s and 60s. Many other greats are mentioned in the book, such as Art Tatum, Ray Brown, and Herb Ellis. There is a strong rivalry in the book between Oscar and Art, as they were known to be the greatest jazz pianists. When I “investigated” this rivalry, I only found mention of them as “friends”. And the notorious Norman G – in the book, the great manipulator of the musicians – gets nothing but praise for all the work he did to bring jazz musicians to the forefront. (As I was googling, I found this video of Ray Charles talking about his greatest influencers; Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, and Nat King Cole. If you have a few minutes, I recommend watching it.)
I was interested in learning about the neighbourhood Oscar grew up in – Little Burgundy in Montreal – a neighbourhood populated by other families that had come to Canada from the West Indies. I would love to have learned more about his parents and their story. I would also like to have read more about Oscar’s personal relationships – he had four wives and several children – but these stories would have made for a very different book. Maybe someone else will take them on!
One piece of advice going into this book… to get the most out of it, it’s important to remember that it’s fiction. I felt compelled to look everything up to find out what was true and what wasn’t. Was he really tangled up with a man who had far more power than Oscar ever knew – enough to manipulate all of the players in the book? I recommend saving the googling for later, and just enjoy the story.
Whatever piece he attacked, a breeze always rose up, he said to anyone who asked, becoming a stiff wind that strengthened bit by bit, transforming itself into a fearsome tempest, which rapidly turned into a cyclone that swept back over all the periods of his life…
I can’t help but admire writers who can demonstrate the power of music.
Music did much more than sooth the soul, it enabled mortals, for the time of a performance, to cherish their life in all its twilight decline.
Canadian Writers Abroad: “Born in Temuco, Chile in 1969, Mauricio Segura arrived in Montréal at the age of five, immigrating to Québec with his parents. His doctorate in French Language and Literature from McGill University (2002) was preceded by the study of economics at the Université de Montréal. His first book was also published in translation by Biblioasis press: Black Alley in 2010 (Côte-des-Nègres, Montréal, Boréal, 1998). According to the Biblioasis author biography, Segura is well known in Québec “as a journalist and commentator on immigrant issues.””
Oscar Peterson is best known for his Canadiana Suite – “Composed in 1963, it is a collection of eight compositions that moves its listeners across the Canadian landscape on a conceptual railway journey…” – which you can listen to a part of here.
CBC Digital Archives: An Interview with Oscar Peterson from 1979.
Thank you to Biblioasis for sending me a copy of this book!