By Dalton Campbell
These photographs of Oscar Peterson and his family were taken in 1944. He was in his late teens and already an experienced professional musician. He had been playing regularly with the Johnny Holmes Orchestra since 1942, a popular swing band that played to the dance crowd in and around Montreal. Oscar left the orchestra in 1947 and began a residency at the Alberta Lounge, a club near Windsor Station, leading a trio there for two years.Given the vibrant jazz scene in the city, Oscar had lots of opportunities to play: he performed professionally, played live for CBC Radio broadcasts, attended jam sessions, and met and jammed with visiting musicians performing in town. He earned praise from Count Basie, Woody Herman, Ella Fitzgerald, Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie and others. Oscar was based in Canada until 1949 when Norman Granz convinced him to join the “Jazz at the Philharmonic” concert series in Los Angeles. This marked the beginning of his international career.
Oscar’s parents were immigrants to Canada. Daniel Peterson, Oscar’s father, was from the British Virgin Islands and worked as a boatswain on a merchant ship. His mother, Kathleen Olivia John, was from St. Kitts, British West Indies, and worked as a cook and housekeeper. They met and married in Montreal, settling in Little Burgundy/St-Henri, a predominately Black neighbourhood. Like many men living there, Daniel got a job at Windsor Station as a porter on passenger trains for the Canadian Pacific Railway.With instruction and encouragement from their parents, the Peterson children became accomplished musicians.
Fred, the eldest child, introduced Oscar to ragtime and jazz when he played it on the family piano. Fred died in the 1930s while still a teenager. Oscar said Fred was the most talented musician of the family.
Another brother, Charles, who served with an artillery battery in the Canadian Army during the Second World War, played in the regimental band. After the war, he continued as a professional trumpet player, doing studio work and performing at various Montreal nightclubs through the 1950s and 1960s. Like his siblings, he also played the piano, but was forced to give it up after suffering an industrial accident while working in a factory in Montreal after the war. Daisy, Oscar’s oldest sister, was also a virtuoso pianist. She earned a degree in music from McGill University and had a lengthy and influential career as a music teacher in Montreal. She was her siblings’ first piano teacher and introduced Oscar to her own piano teacher, Paul de Marky, a concert pianist who played in the Franz Liszt tradition. Daisy taught for many years in Montreal; her students included future jazz musicians Milton Sealey, Oliver Jones, Reg Wilson and Joe Sealy.
- The Oscar Peterson fonds
- Oscar Peterson: A Jazz Sensation (archived)
- Music, Films, Videos and Sound Recordings
Dalton Campbell is an archivist in the Science, Environment and Economy Section of the Private Archives Division.