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A hymn to Oscar Peterson on his 96th birthday

It’s not a secret that Oscar Peterson was a genius.

He’s that kind of “transcendent famous” that makes non-Canadians raise their eyebrows incredulously when they’re informed that yes, he was actually Canadian. You could know who he is without really knowing what he did. He’s white famous. Like Oprah and Barack. BeyoncĂ© and Prince. He is the legendary pianist and composer who solidified our legitimacy on the international jazz stage.

Back when I was coming up in classical music, Oscar had a regular gig in his hometown at Biddles Jazz Bar and Grill. When I made my debut with the Montreal Symphony in the early 2000s, I asked for a hotel in that neighbourhood because I planned on spending what little cash I had to watch him play — and not on the cab fare it would take to get me there. (It turned out that he was away on tour, so instead of being crushed by disappointment and leaving empty-handed, I scarfed down a plate of their saucy, saucy ribs and stole a menu as a souvenir.)

Several debuts later, our paths would cross when we were both invited to perform for the Queen at Roy Thomson Hall. Cirque du Soleil, Michael Schade and The Tragically Hip were all there. Most importantly, my mom and my dad, the late Reverend Sterling Gosman, were in attendance.

But before we get to the part where Oscar and my dad are yukking it up in the dressing room for the duration of the second half of this super schmancy concert, we must rewind to the first time I ever sang Oscar’s “Hymn to Freedom.” I was a teenager singing at Brunswick Street Baptist Church with pianist Geoff Cook. “Hymn To Freedom” was the first time I believed it was possible to compose hope.

To be honest, I remember it sounding to me like other melodies — but it had an undeniable signature and something downright masterful in its hymnlike simplicity. It felt like I’d been singing it my whole life, yet it also called me higher, to a greater truth. A greater hope. Oscar’s music does that. As intricate and virtuosic as his solos and compositions are, they are also invitations.

One of the most inventive soloists that has ever lived, his creations have a thread of fellowship, belonging and inclusion. I only realized how hard this was to accomplish after I started composing my own music. Oscar’s music possesses the special spirit that permeates an art that prioritizes unity and oneness over the look-at-me, kitchen sink approach some composers can’t seem to shake. (Barack Obama was clearly a convert, featuring “Hymn to Freedom” at his inauguration.) Once you’ve been exposed to that superpower, no musical experience will ever satisfy without the presence of that undisrupted authenticity.

This is why the world premiere on Sep. 12 at TIFF of Oscar Peterson: Black + White (directed by Barry Avrich) will be so magnificent. The host of talented musicians coming together to “join every hand and together mould our destiny” is a healing that I welcome into my heart like an Oscar Peterson tune. To be given the gift of interpreting Oscar Peterson’s “Love Ballade” with the young Montreal pianist Daniel Clarke-Bouchard for this remarkable film was a singular and deeply spiritual moment for me.


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