Black History Month Review: Oscar Peterson: Black + White

Year: 2020

Runtime: 81 Minutes

Director: Barry Avrich

By Joan Amenn

As a jazz lover, I had an Oscar Peterson shaped hole in my heart I never knew of. Thankfully, director Barry Avrich has contributed to my complete recovery with this beautiful “docu-concert” about the legendary pianist. Along with the commentary of friends, family and fellow musicians, we get to hear the astonishingly complex sound of Peterson himself who played, as someone mentions, as if he had “four hands instead of two.”

A native of Montreal, Canada, Peterson was a child protegee who, in a rare example of endurance, just got better as he got older. Not only did he get better, the general consensus among jazz musicians is that Peterson was in a class by himself. When Duke Ellington suggested Peterson try to perform as a soloist, he explained that “some people like their caviar without the eggs and onions.” The Duke was always elegant, even in his turns of phrase.

The documentary doesn’t shy away from the difficulties of being a Black performer in the 40’s and 50’s. Even as Peterson was gaining recognition in touring the world, he repeatedly ran into the civil rights issue of segregation of access to restaurants, hotels, and even restrooms. Interestingly Norman Granz, who would take Peterson under his wing and include him in his “Jazz at the Philharmonic” concert series, was a great supporter of the Civil Rights Movement. He made a point of insisting that his performers be treated with respect, especially in the US where Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was organizing protests. King inspired Peterson to compose his “Hymn to Freedom” in 1962, which became the anthem of the Movement.

The film touches on all this but not in a way that is as upbeat and dynamic as Peterson himself, despite the grim nature of some of the details of what he faced on the road. Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock and even Billy Joel pay tribute to Peterson as an inspiration, even as they hint that his technical excellence was somewhat terrifying to try to keep up with. Better not to try, but just enjoy the incredible gift of music that Peterson gave the world and this film highlights.

** “Oscar Peterson: Black + White” is now streaming on HULU.**

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