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Film Review: ‘Oscar Peterson: Black + White’

Oscar Peterson, one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time, believed as a boy that he was destined to play baseball. Thankfully for jazz lovers, young Oscar focused on piano, rather than pursuing his baseball dreams.

Directed by Barry Avrich, Oscar Peterson: Black + White follows the remarkable trajectory of Peterson’s life and art. This is a life-spanning documentary, brilliantly edited by Nicolas Kleiman, narrated in large part by Peterson himself via archival footage. Woven throughout is a musical tribute performed by Toronto-based jazz musicians — some proteges of OP and all lovers of the man and his legacy. 

Speaking at an event honoring Oscar, Quincy Jones quips in an archival clip that he “didn’t even know they had Black people in Canada.” Well, I didn’t know that Oscar Peterson was Canadian, so this whole story was as new to me as it is rich and engaging. In addition to Jones, the impressive lineup of commentators includes: Herbie Hancock, Ramsey Lewis, Branford Marsalis, Jon Batiste, Billy Joel and others.

There’s a moving segment on “Hymn to Freedom,” perhaps Peterson’s most famous composition, inspired by Dr. King and written at the height of the civil rights movement. But it’s just the highlight of a clear-eyed discussion of race, as it played out in Peterson’s life. Growing up in Montreal, Quebec Oscar hadn’t experienced racial hatred the way he did when he came to the States. When asked how it made him feel, Oscar replied simply, “Bad.”

There’s the compelling story of Norman Granz, whose label Verve featured Peterson as a member of its house rhythm section. As producer, promoter and manager, Granz championed Peterson, making him a feature of his influential  ‘Jazz at the Philharmonic’ series. Once, in Ft Worth, Texas, Granz insisted that white cab drivers drive his Black artists, including Peterson, even as a policeman pointed a loaded pistol at Granz’s stomach. “Norman stood his ground,” recalled Peterson.

Dr. Kitty Oliver, commenting on Peterson’s chops, opines, “There’s a way that Black musicians create that is at a different level.” The film draws a line from Art Tatum and Nat “King” Cole to Peterson and beyond that illustrates how Black jazz artists have created a new classical music, born in America of diverse influences.

Oscar Peterson was a big man with a beautiful smile and relentless positivity. Late in the film, his widow Kelly shares some of Oscar’s warmth and depth of humanity. All who contributed to this film would seem to agree with Giovanni Russonello, New York Times jazz critic. “When you put on an Oscar Peterson record, you know you’re going to feel lifted.”

Oscar Peterson: Black + White premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. It will be distributed in Canada by Bell Media and internationally by Fremantle Media.

For deeper insights on this film, please read our exclusive interview with director Barry Avrich:

Q&A: Director Barry Avrich on ‘Oscar Peterson: Black + White’

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