Oscar Peterson: Black + White

Film tribute to the pianist has valuable footage of OP and testimony from other musicians but doesn't convey his real significance


Conceived as a tribute to the life and career of Canada’s most famous jazz musician (if not citizen), Barry Avrich’s filmic account – even with the involvement of his widow Kelly – leaves a lot to be desired. The DVD version is poorly produced and (on my copy) has intermittent but distracting flashes at the edges of the screen. Information is scarce, apart from the vague cover statement that it is “a ground-breaking ‘docu-concert’ that explores the sound, stardom, and staggering virtuosity of an international jazz icon”.

This largely unsubstantiated claim largely rests on the testimonies of such declared “Oscarites” as Ray Charles, Branford Marsalis, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, Ramsey Lewis and Billy Joel – all of whom simply/simplistically insist that he was just the greatest.

Avrich also unwisely chose to have present-day Toronto musicians – including pianist Robi Botos, bassist Dave Young and drummer Larnell Lewis – recreate examples of Peterson’s performances at Toronto’s Koerner Hall. As skilled as they are, they have no relationship to or empathy for Oscar’s art; and these extracts should come with a cautionary caption “Beware of Imitations”.

Thankfully, Oscar Peterson: Black + White includes some valuable materials. Footage of the man himself in TV interviews and “live” concert performances is well-chosen. Particularly moving renditions of his most famous composition Hymn For Freedom leave one wishing that there were more of the same. Again, the uninitiated may not be aware of Oscar’s championing of civil rights, and his experiences in the US and Canada of racial segregation and violence. Space is also devoted to jazz impresario Norman Granz, who shaped Oscar’s career and shared his detestation of racial prejudice.

The concluding section of the film largely features Kelly Peterson recalling her first meeting with Oscar (in a seafood restaurant in Sarasota, Florida), their subsequent long marriage and lives together. (She has devoted much of her widowhood to discovering and producing previously unreleased performances of his concerts).

But unfortunately, despite its good intentions, Oscar Peterson: Black + White frequently verges on hagiography, includes much trivia and signally fails to convey his real significance in the history and dissemination of jazz in the 20th century.

Oscar Peterson: Black + White. A film by Barry Avrich [DVD] (83.00). DAZ01202