Tuesday, May 18, 2010

I miss you, Oscar - and Lena and Ella and Joe and Niels-Henning and...

Lena Horne is gone. I can’t believe she was 92—how long it’s been since I first heard the live recording of her performance, with Lennie Hayton (Lena’s husband) leading the band, at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. I’m sure I was under twenty at the time and knew nothing of her history. I just loved that passionate and sexy voice and the songs she had chosen to sing and the live sound in the room and the band and those arrangements. I can still sing a couple of verses from “I Love to be Loved.”

I’m pretty sure I was born too late—mostly because I never got to see Art Tatum play live. The story might not be absolutely true, but my piano teacher told me that when he saw “God” at the old Georgia Auditorium in Vancouver some time in the mid-1950s, Tatum—who was blind—was led out to the piano, where he sat down, looked up to his right and never moved a muscle except for his hands as he played tune after mesmerizing tune.

Art Tatum died in 1956 at the age of 47. There has never been a jazz piano player since with the same combination of spectacular technique, exquisite tone, masterful touch and control, and improvisational genius.

Fortunately there are many high-quality recordings of Tatum’s music available. There also lots of wonderful Tatum stories.

I didn’t get to see Art Tatum but I did get to see some of the other jazz greats who are now gone: Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Pass, Errol Garner, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Joe Williams. I loved the mainstream people; I wasn’t a fan of Coltrane or Bill Evans (I like Evans now though) or the bebop guys.

My first experience with live jazz came when I was eighteen or nineteen and my teacher took me to hear Errol Garner at the old Isy’s Supper Club on Georgia Street in Vancouver. I had already heard all these great musicians on records, but the club atmosphere and the “liveness” of the music, and seeing and hearing Garner in the flesh, with his big smile and that slicked-down hair and the signature grunting/groaning, and Errol’s idiosyncratic style, with the rhythmic left hand and the wildly inventive improvisations—it was all more than I could take in.

I loved Garner—and I still do—but I was completely blown away when I first heard Oscar Peterson. I never got over it. That driving, virtuosic, relentless swing, with the chord sequences and the riffs that were uniquely Oscar’s gave me the shivers all over. Oscar had this trick—and I’m no musician, so I don’t even know if it was a trick—of improvising in some swinging, fairly up-tempo tune, and just when you think the thing couldn’t get any more exciting, suddenly taking it up a notch to a new level of swing. The first time I heard that was when I really listened to “Noreen’s Nocturne” on the 1956 album The Oscar Peterson Trio at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival. Just the other day I was watching a DVD of a 1985 Peterson concert in Berlin; he did the same thing on "Who Can I Turn To?"

Peterson’s style evolved over his career, but the swing was always there, no matter the venue, no matter the sidemen, no matter the tune. The swing was rendered more interesting and more exciting by a phenomenal technique and a thorough knowledge of the history of jazz, as well as a bottomless well of improvisational creativity.

And he even looked good. Always an elegant dresser, Oscar would invariably appear in a tuxedo or what we used to call a “Peterson jacket,” a gorgeously patterned silk tuxedo jacket in muted blue or red. The sidemen, usually a bassist and a drummer, were also immaculately turned out. A very large man, Peterson had an attractive face and the most beautiful smile that would break out when the swinging got to just the level he wanted it to be. He would sweat profusely and mop his face with a large handkerchief, but never in the theatrical way that was characteristic of Louis Armstrong; Oscar let nothing get in the way of the music.

I saw him live several times throughout his career—at Isy’s, at Simon Fraser University, at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, and in the lean years before jazz made a comeback, at a hotel in North Vancouver that is now condominiums. The last time I saw him was at Jazz Alley in Seattle in 2003. He had had a stroke and was pushed onto the stage in a wheelchair. The great Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen was still playing bass for him—beautifully and devotedly—and Peterson’s other sidemen were top notch. Oscar’s love of playing jazz and his ubiquitous swing were still there but the incredible chops were sadly missing; the sidemen had to do a lot of the solo work.

Oscar died just four years later, on December 23, 2007. The beloved Niels-Henning had died two years before at the age of 59.

I have seen many of the “newer” jazz people—Wynton Marsalis, Keith Jarrett, Chucho Valdes, Bill Charlap, Diana Krall—and I have been thrilled by their playing. But I guess it’s always a generational thing: even though I didn’t really start paying attention to jazz until I was in my late teens, Oscar and Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie and Duke Ellington and Joe Pass—and Lena Horne—were from “my era.” I can still see them and listen to them just about any time I want to, but I miss them all the same. And Oscar, I miss you the most.

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