360°Sound caught up with Barry Avrich, director of the new “docu-concert” Oscar Peterson: Black + White. The film on the life and seven-decade career of the late jazz pianist premiers Sunday, September 12 at Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).
Avrich has directed numerous documentaries, including Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art, The Reckoning: Hollywood’s Worst Kept Secret and David Foster: Off the Record. In this exclusive interview, Avrich discusses Peterson’s virtuosic and unique playing style, his lasting influence, and more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
360°Sound: What attracted you to Oscar Peterson’s story?
Barry Avrich: I grew up in a house filled with culture. I was very, very fortunate. My parents seemed to have six quintessential records for my musical education and for their listening pleasure. Part of that collection were some of the greats and Oscar Peterson was in there. I listened to Oscar over and over and over without even knowing he was Canadian or from Montreal, where I live. My mother would take me to concerts quite often, Oscar included, but I still didn’t know Oscar was Canadian until decades later.
Having gotten my feet wet with a David Foster documentary a few years ago, I really wanted to do something different with a music documentary. I wanted to include obviously Oscar’s great career in music, but I also wanted the audience to get lost in some contemporary interpretation of his music by a diverse group of artists. I wanted to create something called the docu-concert. Oscar was on my radar for a long time, but only really last fall did I say, ‘Ok, now let’s go forward and do something great.’
What was it about Peterson’s playing style that separated him from the other jazz greats?
People say, ‘Why isn’t Oscar Peterson a household name if you talk about some of the musicians of the era?’ I don’t think it was necessarily a jazz thing. I think Oscar decided to live in Canada versus other musicians who made their careers in Europe and the United States. The other thing that was absent from Oscar’s life compared to some of the other artists was a lot of drama. I think what made Oscar special and such a phenomenon was how quickly he became who he is, as a teenager, and found that the music was in him. Even though he was taught some of the basics through his father, his aunt, and another teacher, he still was able to find his own sound and those 88 keys were his drug versus the real thing.
The ability to go from boogie woogie to jazz and interpret compositions and create his own was remarkable. People forget that, aside from his incredible discography of his own albums, he was the go-to musician for everybody in that era. Everybody wanted him on their album. Frank Sinatra tells the story about being in Las Vegas and ending his concert early so he can go hear Oscar play. There was a style in that piano that you’d never heard before in terms of the ability to cover all 88 keys with his style. Just exceptional.
Discuss the importance of having Peterson’s voice in the doc. Did you have a lot of great archival interview footage to work with?
I felt like this film really needed to be Oscar’s words. I could not have ever walked in his shoes for so many reasons. We scoured the Earth to find interviews, unseen interviews, performance clips, but most importantly footage that allowed us as filmmakers to let Oscar tell his story from the beginning to the end. Every milestone, every difficult hardship in his life, is through his own words. No voice-over, no narration, nobody commenting; it’s Oscar’s story in this film from top to bottom. It was just me and my team to find the structure and the devices in how to do it.
I was excited in that we had an extraordinary team scouring the Earth for interviews and footage. At the same time, I was fortunate to have a spectacular editor in Nicolas Kleiman who really understood what I wanted to do in the film and had a great ability to put it together. My only direction to him was that I wanted a freight train of a film. I wanted it to look and sound the way Oscar played.
As Peterson says in the film, the origins of jazz belong to Black people. The white musicians were a clique, he said, and Black musicians had to take the jazz route because they had no other route. Speak on how Peterson and Black jazz artists were ahead of the curve in terms of jazz.
A lot of credit to [producer and Verve label founder] Norman Granz who really took jazz to another level. Oscar and a lot of musicians of his era took jazz from the basement nightclubs and took it to the A-list rooms, took it to Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, and huge stages around the world that suddenly made jazz, I think, an A-list form of music. They were competing when you have all the attention going to Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman and these predominantly white dance bands that were getting the airplay.
Oscar and his colleagues didn’t stand a chance until suddenly their music burst onto the scene and forced people to pay attention to it in environments that they were used to going to versus going into the basements and smoky jazz clubs. I think Oscar is owed enormous gratitude for making jazz as mainstream as it was going to be. One of the main points in the film that I was trying to make was the fact that you hear so much of Oscar in jazz and that kind of musicianship in even the most contemporary music today.
Talk a bit about how he soaked up his influences, such as pianist Art Tatum, and contributed to the art form as somewhat of an outsider growing up in Montreal.
Well, I don’t think he ever saw himself as an outsider. The wonderful thing about Oscar versus some of the other musicians, whether they be jazz artists or artists of that era, he was so generous in sharing the stage and the spotlight with the incredible musicians that were part of his trio. It wasn’t Oscar first. That said a lot about him – approachable, accessible, teacher, somebody that was constantly learning.
He truly appreciated the ensemble genre and could also play comfortably alone. I think he was monumental in elevating the art form, not only with his distinctive style and his musicianship but in how collaborative he was. If you look at some other the artists like Jerry Lee Lewis or James Brown or even Miles Davis, it was all about them. The back-line was the back-line. Oscar was, ‘Hey, I come to play, but I come to play with my fellow musicians, and they are equals.’
What Peterson albums or compilations would you recommend?
Certainly, the [Verve 2-CD compilation] The Best of Oscar Peterson is where you have it all. I think in terms of songs you have to hear a couple of those, some of them are his compositions and some are covers, “Tenderly,” “Caravan,” “Night Train,” “Summertime.” Oscar Peterson Plays Duke Ellington, which he recorded in ’52, is just great. In ’63, another great one is My Favorite Instrument. In ’74 he releases an album that won a Grammy called The Trio, which is probably one of his greatest ensembles with Joe Pass and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen – spectacular, spectacular. I could keep going but those are probably the top ones.
Anything you’d like to add about the doc?
It’s just great storytelling. This isn’t a film for jazz lovers and if you don’t like jazz don’t come in. It’s really the history of a very talented person who overcame a lot and was just so extraordinarily generous in his career. To me, the headline is: If you love great storytelling and you love music, check it out. Don’t be afraid because you might not be interested in jazz; that would be a huge mistake. I don’t call this a jazz film. I call it a docu-concert of an iconic musician.
Oscar Peterson: Black + White premiers at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. It will be distributed in Canada by Bell Media and internationally by Fremantle Media.