Oscar Peterson (1925-2007)

Oscar Peterson jazz pianist
Photo by FPG/Getty Images

When Oscar Peterson died, he received the kind of multi-column obituaries that are usually reserved for star entertainers, not jazz musicians. But he was a special sort of jazzman, a pianistic phenomenon who spent his long career bestriding mainstream culture, equally at home in a club as the Albert Hall.


The most obvious key to his renown was his amazing technique, an awesome facility rare in jazz, but which Peterson simply regarded as a measure of sincerity. As he once put it, ‘the whole idea of jazz is that if you think of a phrase, you should be able to play it’. He had no patience with half-articulated fumbling, and his racing mind was matched by his flying fingers. Classical lessons began early in his native Montreal, with a teacher who had studied with a pupil of Liszt,
to whom he saw a resemblance in the young Peterson. In 1949, at the age of 24, Peterson made a sensational US debut, bringing the house down at a Jazz at the Philharmonic concert (JATP) in New York. The JATP’s founder, Norman Granz, became his mentor, and the star’s career took off, accompanying a host of jazz legends and leading his own groups. He expanded his partnership with the bassist Ray Brown to create two trios, the first with guitarist Herb Ellis, who was replaced in 1958 by drummer Ed Thigpen.

But the pianist did have his detractors, who resented his accomplishment: for some, his cascades of notes seemed superficial, compared to the craggy directness of, say, Thelonious Monk. But his accomplishment was real, an authentic expression of his love of jazz and performance. He was a great communicator, and his sense of joy as well as his gifts earned him an audience of millions, and the respect and admiration of his peers.

Though bad health – including a stroke in 1993 – slowed him down, he continued to delight his fans until close to his death, aged 83. And there is plenty of delight in such recordings as Night Train, a 1960s array of blues and standards. As Peterson shakes the piano with a chorus of thundering, double-fisted tremolos, you may think, ‘well yes, this might just be the way Liszt would play jazz’

Michel Petrucciani (1962-1999)

Michel Petrucciani jazz pianist
Photo by Fredrich Cantor/Redferns

A photograph of Michel Petrucciani in the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz shows him being carried by saxophonist Charles Lloyd. In fact, musicians on the festival circuit vied for the honour of bearing the pianist on to the stage. The congenital illness – osteogenesis imperfecta, or ‘brittle bones’ – which stunted his growth and limited his movement made his talent all the more remarkable, and Petrucciani himself an object of wonder and admiration to players and listeners worldwide. His personality was as unique as his ability. Born into a Franco-Italian family of musicians, at four he announced he wanted to play the piano, after seeing Duke Ellington on TV. Fobbed off with a toy instrument, the toddler smashed it, and a proper, if decrepit, piano appeared, adapted so he could reach the pedals.

Classical training followed, but jazz was his ruling passion. Making his professional debut at 13, he quickly came to international attention. Any hint of scepticism at his unprepossessing appearance vanished the instant he sat down and played, and a wave of top-flight support took him from Paris to New York and beyond. His globetrotting career continued until 1999 when he died from pneumonia at just 36. At no point did he trade on his disability. Music was all that mattered, and he pursued it with panache. A testament to Petrucciani’s charisma is the complete recording of his final concert in a triumphant 1997 solo tour of Germany. Comprising originals and standards, it demonstrates the range of his inspiration and technique. Playing without a pause, he conjures sequences that celebrate all the possibilities of jazz piano – from the Romantic harmonies of Ellington and the Impressionism of Bill Evans, to the rhapsodies of Keith Jarrett, the razor-edge bop of Bud Powell, Erroll Garner’s sheer delight. But the spell Petrucciani casts is all his own, as is his remarkable relation to his audience. They are palpably enchanted, hanging on every note, and his witty asides to them create a warmth and immediacy rare in jazz. Petrucciani obviously loved performing, and the occasion celebrates a giant of commitment, passion and joy.

Bud Powell (1924-1966)

Bud Powell jazz pianist
Photo by JP Jazz Archive /Redferns

All too often, the begetters of bebop confirmed Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum that there are no second acts in American lives. Many, such as Charlie Parker, died young, burned out by the music’s drug-ridden lifestyle. But the fate of Bud Powell, who had as revolutionary an impact on the piano as Parker did on the saxophone, may be more poignant.

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A shy, reclusive personality, Powell’s career was blighted by a police beating, periods in mental institutions, alcoholism and TB. During his last decade, his playing veered between flickers of brilliance and painful, fumbling approximation, until his death in 1966 aged 41. There wasn’t a single jazz pianist who didn’t bear the imprint of his fiery creativity. He set both the terms for the modern keyboard style and, in his heyday, an almost terrifying standard of performance.

A Powell piano solo wasn’t so much played as unleashed, its momentum combining dazzling imagination and uncanny technical lucidity. His up-tempo feats were astonishing, as his right hand sent lines spinning over the keyboard, with riffs and bursts of melody punctuated by his left. That non-stop linear virtuosity became the hallmark of bebop piano, but what made him unique was his variety of accent and nuance. This was no mechanical stream of quavers, but a torrent of ideas – accompanied by the pianist’s groans, as if reflecting the intensity of his inspiration. And his ballads were no less highly charged, if more lush and rhapsodic, conveying a trance-like immersion in his instrument. All those qualities illuminate Tempus Fugue-It, a Properbox chockful of vintage Powell. Even early on he is centre of attention, and his later work with Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins does justice to his gifts. His invention is exemplified in two takes of ‘Fine and Dandy’ made within minutes of each other, pairing Powell and tenor saxist Sonny Stitt. Unfazed by the lightning tempo, Powell comes up with equally amazing solos each time.

His trio performances are more remarkable, turning hoary standards like ‘Indiana’ into blazing revelations. Such achievements are what Bill Evans, one of his heirs, had in mind when he declared that Powell’s ‘insight
and talent were unmatched in hard-core, true jazz’.

Sun Ra (1914-1993)

Sun Ra best jazz pianist
Photo by Andrew Putler/Redferns

In jazz, individuality is part of the job description, but Sun Ra took it to a whole new level. Another dimension, in fact, since the pianist-composer-prophet claimed not to have been born on Earth at all, but to have ‘arrived’ from Saturn, teleported by ‘the Master-Creator of the universe’ to save the world from chaos through his music.

Not surprisingly, many critics refused to take this seriously, but for over 40 years, Sun Ra attracted a cult following with his ‘Arkestra’, a communal band of varying size committed to disseminating his message. And while he and they never got rich, they created a huge body of work that cast a weirdly wonderful spell, pushed forward the frontiers of jazz and swung like mad.

Despite his cosmic claims, Sun Ra was born plain Herman Blount in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1914, to an African-American family of modest means. He quickly displayed remarkable musical and intellectual gifts, and by the age of 20 he was leading his own band. Not long after, he had a vision of his extraterrestrial origins, later compounded with a fascination for ancient Egypt as the source of Afro-European culture. In 1952, he proclaimed his true roots by changing his name to Le Sony’r Ra and formed his own Space Trio, the core of his first Arkestra. Musicians were drawn to him by his charisma, at once down home and far out, stretching their minds and talents. An Arkestra gig was meant to be a brilliant extravaganza, bringing together music, poetry, theatre and dance. Garbed in gorgeous robes, spangled headdresses, masks and gaudy plumage, the band delivered Ra compositions that celebrated space and time, peace and hope, and joyous energy. Over the years, until his death in 1993, Sun Ra pioneered techniques from electronics to collective improvisation. At the same time, blues and swing are never far away, as you can hear on his most accessible album, Jazz in Silhouette. Recorded in 1958, it includes mystic visions, subtle lines and colours, non-stop grooves and exhilarating solos. And we share the whole experience, since, in Sun Ra’s words, ‘You’re all just instruments, in this vast Arkestra called life’.

Esbjörn Svensson (1964-2008)

Esbjörn Svensson jazz pianist
Photo by Peter Van Breukelen/Redferns

An EST concert was a piano trio gig unlike any other. Led by the late Esbjörn Svensson, with bassist Dan Berglund and drummer Magnus Öström, the group mesmerised clubs and concert venues not just with their playing, but with spacey effects – electronics, light-shows, smoke – usually associated with stadium rock. And their music had the same kind of manifold appeal – rooted in jazz, but incorporating catchy hooks, grooves and textures.

To Svensson it was all part of reaching out to as wide an audience as possible, which is why his accidental death, in 2008 at just 44, was such a shock. Svensson grew up in small-town Sweden, absorbing classical music from his pianist-mother, jazz from his father and rock and pop from the heady culture of the 1960s and 1970s. The inspiration of Thelonious Monk, Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea framed his pianistic horizon, and he obtained a classical grounding at the Stockholm Conservatoire. Following graduation, studio work and a spell playing bebop, Svensson began the EST (Esbjörn Svensson Trio) project with Öström and Berglund in 1993. After competent early records, something new came in 1996 with a quirky disc of Monk tunes. In 2000, the CD Good Morning Susie Soho made them stars, in both pop and jazz charts. EST were headliners in Europe, Asia and the US. Good Morning Susie Soho is still a good place to start appreciating their energy, invention and quality sans frontières.

The tracks encompass the witty, rock-style clatter of the title tune, Svensson’s Chopinesque musings on ‘Serenity’, razor-sharp free-bop in ‘Providence’ and the tabla-raga mood of ‘The Face of Love’. You can already feel his interest in dramatic shape, his concern that each piece should tell a story. Indeed, for some critics, the group’s commitment to drama undermined its sense of discovery. To them, EST performances seemed less about jazz’s ‘sound of surprise’ than pop’s super-emotional manipulation. But Svensson declared that simply playing jazz was secondary to creating ‘the EST sound… We just try to go to the heart’. That musical heart throbs away on the group’s last double-CD Live in Hamburg.

Art Tatum (1909-1956)

Art Tatum jazz pianist
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There was something almost mythic about Art Tatum from the beginning. Pianists hearing his first solo recordings in 1933 assumed there had to be more than one person playing: such terrifying virtuosity could not come from a single pair of hands. And yet the amiable prodigy from Ohio – virtually blind from birth – soon became a familiar if still incredible presence on New York’s scene and beyond. Though his style was based on the high-powered facility of such stride masters as Fats Waller, Tatum took their keyboard feats to another level, not just in digital dexterity but in a harmonic and rhythmic command which produced spontaneous transformations of standard tunes. Dazzling sequences of new chords and keys defied the bar lines before returning, with nonchalant precision, to the original structure. Tatum’s mastery was universally acknowledged. When he entered a club where Fats Waller was playing Waller announced, ‘I play piano, but God is in the house tonight.’ And his reputation extended beyond jazz: experiencing Tatum in a 52nd Street club, Vladimir Horowitz exclaimed, ‘I don’t believe my eyes and ears.’ Tatum was essentially a jazz musician, relishing musical immediacy. He loved to hang out in after-hours clubs, seeming to take delight in coaxing wonders out of clapped-out pianos, transcending their stuck keys and dodgy tuning till they glittered like concert grands.

Toward the end of his life – which came prematurely in 1956 at the age of 47 – he was recorded at length in scrupulous studio conditions. But a pair of happy sessions from the same period occurred at the home
of a Hollywood music director and Tatum devotee. Issued as a two-CD set on Verve, the occasions were an informal homage. The sound is good and the atmosphere makes up for the few blemishes inevitable in live recording. One gem succeeds another: the likes of ‘Tenderly’, ‘Too Marvellous for Words’, and ‘Body and Soul’ shine with the pianist’s brilliance. They leave you awestruck, shaking your head and inclined to agree with the critic who declared, ‘Ask ten pianists to name the greatest jazz pianist ever and eight will tell you Art Tatum. The other two are wrong.’

Cecil Taylor (1929- 2018)

Cecil Taylor best jazz pianists
Photo by Andrew Putler/Redferns

It might seem odd to include an entry for a musician whom a fair number of critics don’t consider a jazz musician at all. But in a way, that’s jazz – a question-begging activity, defying easy categories with the force of its energy and excitement. And even listeners who dispute Cecil Taylor’s jazz credentials wouldn’t deny his creative intensity. They’d just protest that his furious, free-form piano improvisations, pummelling the keyboard with fingers, fists and forearms, bearing no relation to metre or melody and often lasting well over an hour, belong to the European avant-garde, not African-American tradition. But Taylor himself has always disagreed. Though conservatory-trained and possessing a virtuoso technique, he regards jazz as black music, his way, he once said, ‘of holding on to Negro culture’. His fascination with the rhythmic and harmonic abstractions of Stravinsky and Bartók, Dave Brubeck and Lennie Tristano gave way to the potency of African-American pianists: Ellington, Monk, Horace Silver. Revelling in what he called ‘the physicality, the filth, the movement in the attack’, the young Taylor made it his own. He viewed the piano as percussive – ‘88 tuned drums’, his style an amalgam he dubbed ‘rhythm-sound-energy’.

His ultimate inspiration was the very force of nature: ‘music is as close as I can become to a mountain, tree or river’. Though that kind of mysticism may seem a long way from blues and swing, Taylor’s work has its own intoxication. And in his debut album, Jazz Advance, from 1956, blues and swing are still manifest – his trio and quartet, with soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, tackle a programme by Taylor himself, Monk, Ellington, even Cole Porter. But Taylor’s approach is already breathtakingly unique. Every tune becomes a Taylor original, recreated by the pianist’s knack for generating new shapes, solos which follow their own motivic logic, oblique, asymmetrical, framed by rhythmic precision and the clarity of his touch. His coherence is not about spinning out licks or getting in a groove. He hollows out his own musical dimension, startling and exhilarating. Jazz Advance is an ideal introduction, a prelude to the torrential flights which have made Taylor legendary.

Stan Tracey (b.1926)

Stan Tracey jazz pianist
Stan Tracey with Lucky Thompson, et al, at Ronnie Scott's club, circa 1962
Photo by Getty Images

Some non-American jazz players resent the music’s Yankee pedigree, feeling it makes them second-class citizens. But the British pianist Stan Tracey is a vibrant example of how anyone can be at home in jazz and forge their own creative voice.

In fact, the Tracey case also shows that jazz can have a life-changing impact even before it’s identified as jazz. Growing up in ordinary, fairly nondescript surroundings in south London in the 1930s, young Tracey happened to hear a record by Andy Kirk’s Kansas City band which at once decided his fate. His subsequent path to a full-time jazz career was circuitous, taking in the accordion, novelty trios and entertaining the troops in World War II. But he played jazz whenever he could and was perfectly content with the kind of wages that come from passing the hat. His burgeoning reputation brought greater financial rewards when he joined Ted Heath’s popular band in 1957, until its adulterated jazz content forced his resignation. However, the ’60s found him immersed in jazz up to his eyeballs: for seven years he was house pianist at Ronnie Scott’s club, playing six long nights a week with Sunday afternoons often thrown in as well. In a way, it was an ideal job.

Tracey impressed such visiting American stars as tenor giant Sonny Rollins, who declared, ‘Does anybody here realise how good he is?’ But the impossible hours and the drugs required to sustain them took their toll, until Tracey’s wife Jackie, fearing for his very survival, made him quit. Since, he has pursued a freelance career, keeping jazz uppermost as performer and composer. His craggy piano style is unmistakeable, a joy of British jazz. His most popular composition remains his suite Under Milk Wood, based on Dylan Thomas’s play. Featuring tenorist Bobby Wellins, and a rhythm section, the selections are grooving medium tempos, aside from the title track and many people’s favourite, the haunting ‘Starless and Bible Black’. I’m partial to the closer, a free-swinging uptempo blues called ‘AM Mayhem’, because its spirit reminds me of his response when I asked him what his ultimate ambition was. ‘To play,’ he replied. ‘Just play: an unending quartet tour.’

Fats Waller (1904-1943)

Fats Waller jazz pianist
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Depending on his mood, Fats Waller could be ‘the cheerful little earful’ or ‘the harmful little armful’. Usually, he was both, winning a huge following in the 1930s and ’40s with his high-spirited, satiric takes on run-of-the-mill popular songs. He transformed his material with a sense of humour, ebullient vocal style and the infectious swing enshrined in the name of his jumping sextet: Fats Waller and His Rhythm. But jazz fans and musicians prized his glittering piano style. He was a product of the demanding school of New York stride players, whose formidable technique was matched by competitive zest. They challenged each other wherever there was a piano and Waller often prevailed with his sparkling invention and the dexterity, power and finesse you might expect from a sometime pupil of Leopold Godowsky. Waller’s taste for classical music was as natural to him as his genius for swing. He rated JS Bach the third greatest man in history (after Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D Roosevelt) and performed his works on an organ at home. And his own evergreen compositions – such as ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ and ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’ – exhibit the same kind of refinement as his piano touch. Some of his colleagues believed that his subtler side was frustrated by the non-stop levity that his popular reputation required.

That frustration may have fuelled the heavy drinking which, along with his exhausting routine, led to his death at 39 in 1943. But his many recordings display all the facets of a unique personality, from his demolition of woeful tunes like ‘The Curse of an Aching Heart’ to such famous taglines as ‘One never knows, do one?’, which crowns ‘Your Feet’s Too Big’, to the sheer rampaging abandon of ‘Shortnin’ Bread’. All these gifts from the Waller legacy are included in a selection called Ain’t Misbehavin’, with sterling performances of ‘Blue Turnin’ Grey Over You’ and ‘Jitterbug Waltz’, which features Waller on organ. And gleaming everywhere are the delights of his playing, which set a standard for those he inspired. As the greatest of jazz keyboard virtuosos Art Tatum once
put it when asked about his influences, ‘Fats, man, that’s where I come from. Quite a place to come from.’

Jessica Williams (b.1948)

Sometimes you can tell a lot about jazz musicians just from the way they come on stage. When I heard Jessica Williams a few years back, she strolled out supremely relaxed, a rangy blonde with a smile at once confident, welcoming and impish, as if neither she nor we could tell what was going to happen next. Sitting down at the concert grand, she launched into a 15-minute epitome of jazz piano, quarrying themes and spinning out embellishments, alternating cheeky asides and virtuoso flourishes, displaying unlimited imagination and an eye-popping technique that encompassed the whole keyboard. Audiences and musicians have been impressed with what she can do for over 40 years, although Williams, now in her sixties, has pursued her career in her own way. She’s always rejected categories, believing in ‘letting my conservatory training sing through me in a language not jazz, not classical, but mine alone’. But her jazz roots go deep, the result of years of gigging with the biggest names in the business.

Her great distinction is the way she has distilled the whole spectrum of jazz piano into a richly inclusive personal style. She reveres the quirky, splayed, wrong-footing attack of Thelonious Monk, but also the sensitivity of Bill Evans, the harmonies of McCoy Tyner, the prestidigitation of Art Tatum. And she admires Glenn Gould. Given that expressive scope, a Williams solo is always a kind of meditation, an often playful quest to see what secrets a particular tune will yield. And unaccompanied solo playing is her special forte, as revealed on one of her most recent CDs, The Real Deal. Like all her records, it features forays into Monk territory (‘Friday the 13th’, ‘Round Midnight’), plus some surprises, including an impressionistic version of the trad classic ‘Petite Fleur’ which she wryly describes as ‘a wind-up jewellery box’. Some of her best playing is on ballads: ‘Sweet and Lovely’ and ‘My Romance’ embody her spectacular range of abilities – lyricism and deft swing; a darting, striding left hand with glistening runs and arpeggios in the right (or the other way around); Cheshire Cat-lines and chords, and the perpetual impulse of discovery.


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Geoffrey SmithJournalist and Jazz Critic, BBC Music Magazine

Born in Michigan, USA in 1943 Geoffrey Smith grew up to the diverse sounds of Schubert, jazz and Gilbert & Sullivan. Today he is based in the UK and is a freelance writer and lecturer, contributing articles and reviews to a variety of publications, including BBC Music Magazine, Country Life, New Society and The Spectator. He was also previously the presenter of Jazz Record Requests and Geoffrey Smith's Jazz on BBC Radio 3.