Photo by Herman Leonard | CTS Images

The Black + White Truth about Oscar Peterson and Racism in Canada

Doc illustrates our discomfort with confronting racism in Canada

11 mins read

Oscar Peterson is a musical legend. Every few years, we are reminded of this fact when a new building is dedicated in his honour, a protégé receives a new scholarship bearing his name, or a new hip hop album incorporates his jazzy sound. Despite the numerous accolades he has received, it never feels like enough. Further proof of Peterson’s under-appreciation is evident in the scant number of documentaries made about him. While Peterson’s life is worthy of ongoing examination, one cannot overlook the blemishes of history and elements of systemic racism from which his significant career emerged when showering him with praise.

This kind of inadvertent erasure can occur even with the best of intentions. A perfect example of this is Barry Avrich’s documentary Oscar Peterson: Black + White, which uses Peterson’s music as an entry point into the jazz pianist’s extraordinary life.

Oscar Peterson at the piano

Pulling together a slew of talented musicians and artists, including Joe Sealy, Measha Brueggergosman, Robi Botos, Jackie Richardson, and Dave Young, Avrich blends contemporary performances, interviews, and archival footage to form a picture of Peterson’s career. He charts Peterson’s journey from a teenage virtuoso who won a radio talent contest in Montreal to one of the most influential jazz artists of all time. The documentary does not veer from the established story of Peterson’s rise. Avrich recounts how great musicians Art Tatum and Nat King Cole influenced Peterson, his discovery by legendary American jazz producer Norman Granz, his legendary years touring worldwide while recording classic albums, and his recovery from a stroke towards the end of his life.

While Black + White serves as a decent introduction to Peterson’s artistry and phenomenal dexterity on the ivory keys, the man himself gets overshadowed by his music. Aside from glossing over Peterson’s four marriages, and the impact that touring had on those relationships, Avrich shortchanges what an inspiration the musician was to genera­tions of Black Canadians.

Ascending to popular and cultural heights when the wings of Black artists were repeatedly clipped by society, Peterson broke through every ceiling he encountered. He showed that success in the music industry was achievable for Canadians of colour. Artists like Maestro Fresh Wes, Fefe Dobson, Jully Black, Drake, The Weeknd and so many other Canadian talents were able to take the music world by storm because Peterson paved the way.

This is not to say that Oscar Peterson: Black + White ignores the racial adversities that Peterson had to navigate as if he was on an endless Tough Mudder course. As historian and author Rosemary Sadlier notes in the documentary, people sometimes forget to appreciate “how challenging it was to be a Black person in the 1920s, the 1930s, the 1940s, and frankly to this day.” However, the film approaches the issue of race through a predominantly American lens.

Avrich’s documentary captures how touring with Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic exposed Peterson to the racism of the American south where Black musicians con­tinually crashed into the wall of segregation at every stop. They were forced to stay in separate hotels and were routinely paid far less than their white bandmates. Moreover, they had no freedom of movement.

Peterson remarks in one archival interview that the worst moment of his life was when he saw true racial hatred for the first time. While his experiences in the south and observing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s approach to peaceful protest led him to create one of his most influential works, “Hymn to Freedom,” a song that not only became the anthem of the civil rights movement, but was also featured in the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama, the film gives the impression that Peterson’s homeland did not have its racial challenges. To omit the harsh realities of Peterson’s life in Canada is to reduce what life was like for Blacks here when Peterson was growing up and becoming a star in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s.

Oscar Peterson at the piano
Oscar Peterson at the piano in 1963 | CBC Archive Sales

While Canadians like to wrap themselves in the cloak of multicul­turalism and downplay the country’s problematic history with race, growing up in the cultural melting pot of Saint-Henri, Montreal did not mean Peterson was immune to racism. It is one of the reasons his railway porter father, the only steady job a Black man could get in Montreal at the time, pushed him and his siblings into music. It was meant to provide them with a ticket to something greater than what society afforded them at the time.

Of course, even when Peterson was climbing the tree of success, people had their axes ready to cut him back down. In his book Oscar Peterson: A Musical Biography, Alex Barris points to an incident in which a man exiting a Montreal taxicab punched Peterson in the face simply because he wanted the white woman who was heading for the same taxi to get the ride. All of this happened in front of a police officer whose only reaction was to threaten to arrest Peterson after he struck back.

This would not be the last time Peterson noted the way Canadian law enforcement failed to act when it came to people of colour. An infamous incident made headlines in 1951 when Peterson was repeatedly refused a haircut at a barbershop in Hamilton, Ontario while a white customer, who arrived after him, was served promptly.

Although Peterson was not as vocal in his activism as other artists were, his music was a vessel that brought people together. Moreover, he used his platform to speak to inequality in his own subtle way. Jack Batten’s biography Oscar Peterson: The Man and His Jazz, briefly touches on an interview in which Peterson addressed the lack of Black representation in Canadian advertising.

Oscar Peterson in the 1980s
Photo by Dimo Safari

What is remarkable about Peterson as both a man and an artist is that the inequality he witnessed did little to dampen his love for Canada. He believed in the country and the endless poten­tial each region offered. One just needs to listen to the Oscar Peterson’s Trio’s Canadiana Suite for proof of this sentiment. Each mesmerizing song captures the distinct tones and vibrant richness of the Canadian landscape. Although he played with the greats in jazz from the U.S. (and other nations) including Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, and Stevie Wonder, Canada was always where his heart lay.

Whether or not the country truly recip­rocated this love is something that Oscar Peterson: Black + White frequently ponders. Canada is notorious for celebrating its own only after they have achieved international success, and Avrich’s film captures how the jazz pianist’s unique sound became globally adored. Like a chess master who can see a checkmate based on his opponent’s opening move, Peterson was always thinking far ahead of the notes he was playing. Despite the mind-boggling technical mastery he effort­lessly displayed, the power of his music was accessible and universal.

The sheer joy of Peterson’s music, and the difficulty it takes to reconstruct it, can be felt in every performance in Avrich’s film. While no contemporary musician can surpass Peterson’s version of his own songs, nor should they be expected to, they harness his spirit with every note. Listening to Canadian treasure Jackie Richardson belt out “Hymn to Freedom” as images from the 2020 Black Lives Matter global protests appear, the film powerfully conveys Peterson’s ongoing relevance.

Oscar Peterson: Black + White is a service­able introduction to Peterson’s life and music. It offers a taste of how influential an artist he was, pushing boundaries and inspiring gen­erations of musicians, across multiple genres, in the process.

However, one cannot truly appreciate the richness of Peterson’s life and music without fully examining the experiences, both at home and abroad, that made him the man he was. Sadly, this aspect is where the film’s treatment of Peterson’s story is completely out of tune.

Oscar Peterson: Black + White is now streaming on Crave.

Courtney Small is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic and co-host of the radio show Frameline. He has contributed to That Shelf, Leonard Maltin, Cinema Axis, In the Seats, and Black Girl Nerds. He is the host of the Changing Reels podcast and is a member of the Toronto Film Critics Association, Online Film Critics Society and the African American Film Critics Association.

Previous Story

Flee and the Weight of Shadows

Next Story

Contest: Win ROE Passes to Flee at TIFF Bell Lightbox

Latest from Blog

0 $0.00