To mark Black History Month the folks who make the televised Heritage Minutes produced a new one about jazz pianist Oscar Peterson, who was born in Montreal in 1925.
Peterson, whom jazz fans affectionally call OP, was one of the most flamboyant, technically brilliant — and swinging — pianists in the history of jazz, or, indeed, of any kind of music. His recordings are still bestsellers more than a dozen years after his death, and other musicians continue to view him and his playing with awe.
Sixty seconds is hardly enough time to get started on the story of such a colossal artistic figure, but the Heritage Minute makes a game effort. Rather than use any of the extensive actual footage of Peterson, the Minute’s producers hew to their usual style. They have actors depict their characters.
The Minute gives the barebones of OP’s life and career, starting with his childhood in the Saint-Henri neighbourhood in southwest Montreal, down the hill from the stone-clad mansions of Westmount. The Minute suggests something of the barriers Black artists faced in the 1930s and 1940s when Peterson was getting his start, but only suggests it.
It was an era when many of the Black giants of jazz — including saxophonists Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Parker, trumpeters Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie, singers Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, and pianists Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum — were making musical history, a history that will last, thanks to recordings, for the ages.
But all of them faced the biting sting of unbridled racism, in one way or another, in a world that did not even bother to pay lip service to notions of racial equality.
Racial tensions even in Canada
Most of the big bands of Peterson’s early years were racially segregated.
When Benny Goodman brought Black musicians Lionel Hampton, Charlie Christian, and Teddy Wilson into his band, and Artie Shaw featured a young singer named Billie Holiday with his, it was revolutionary. But it was no picnic for the Black musicians who faced a myriad of well-documented macro and micro aggressions. They couldn’t even stay in the same hotels as the rest of the band, and, for the most part, were not allowed to use the washrooms in the venues where they had star billing.
Early in his career, Oscar Peterson played, in his hometown, in the otherwise all-white band of Johnny Holmes. In later years, OP credited Holmes as one of his musical mentors. But even in Canada there was racial tension, to which the Heritage Minute alludes in a brief scene.
The Minute shows a young Oscar Peterson lining up at the stage door of a concert venue — probably Victoria Hall in Westmount — with a group of white musicians. A white manager at the door looks on contemptuously as the young Black bandmember enters. In voice-over the actor portraying Oscar Peterson says: “It wasn’t easy but I found my stage.”
The next shot shows us the Alberta Lounge in downtown Montreal, where OP got his first chance to play regularly with a trio. Impresario Norman Granz heard him playing there, via a live radio broadcast, and, the story goes, instantly signed him to tour with his Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) organization. Thanks to JATP, Peterson got his first chance to perform in many of the major concert halls of the U.S. and Europe.
Before any of that happened, the great jazz pianist had another important early mentor: his older sister Daisy Peterson Sweeney.
In the Heritage Minute, they only very briefly mention Daisy. It’s in the scene where their dad introduces the family to their new piano, and first asks Daisy to play, then Oscar. The younger brother upstages his sister in this telling. The truth is somewhat more nuanced. Indeed, the older sister was, for a number of years, her younger brother’s teacher.
Teacher to the Montreal Black community
Daisy Sweeney continued to have a long career as a music teacher to Montreal’s Black community long after her younger brother had left the nest. She gave lessons at the Negro Community Centre, in the city’s historic Black neighbourhood of Little Burgundy for many decades.
In time, the visigoths of municipal progress destroyed the neighbourhood, starting in the 1970s with the massive Ville-Marie expressway. It slashed through the heart of the district and resulted in the demolition of more than 800 homes. Following that catastrophe, there came a city of Montreal urban renewal project, which forced out thousands of other residents.
By 1993 the Negro Community Centre was forced to close its doors, but Daisy Sweeney continued teaching from her home in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce (NDG), a few kilometres north and west of the old neighbourhood.
She imparted not only musical skills, but a love for music, all kinds of music. Daisy deeply loved the classics. In fact, in later years she complained that her younger brother was cheated out of a career as a concert pianist, playing Brahms and Beethoven, because he was Black.
Every class that Daisy taught included not only the usual repertoire, but also some time devoted to improvisation, something few music teachers did until quite recently. After students had finished with their assigned pieces, Daisy would always ask them to play something of their own choice and improvise on it. In a class I had the privilege to witness in the early 1990s the student chose the Hoagy Carmichael standard “Heart and Soul.”
Daisy’s students revered her. She not only nurtured their capacity for music, she nurtured them as human beings. As adults, they would speak of her in reverential terms, always calling her Mrs. Sweeney.
Next to Oscar Peterson the most eminent jazz pianist to emerge from Montreal’s Black community was another of Daisy Sweeney’s students, Oliver Jones.
Back in the 1990s, after he had achieved considerable international success, the Montreal Symphony invited Jones to play with them, a prospect he found more than a bit daunting. He decided he needed a bit of coaching and called up his former teacher to arrange a lesson.
“You’re never too old to learn from Mrs. Sweeney!” he said at the time.
These days Montreal’s historic Black neighbourhood is experiencing something of a revival. Successful and accomplished Black Montrealers (and others who are not Black) have moved in — among them, broadcaster-turned-governor-general, Michaëlle Jean.
There are large murals on some walls in Little Burgundy honouring a few of the community’s most eminent members. There is one of Oscar Peterson, another of Oliver Jones, and in 2018 they unveiled one of Daisy Sweeny (pictured here).
After some to-ing and fro-ing, the city of Montreal also decided to name a street in the neighbourhood after Daisy Sweeney.
One day, there might also be a Heritage Minute.
Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble’s politics reporter.
Image credit: Karl Nerenberg/rabble.ca