The first face I saw at the Oscar Peterson memorial last weekend was Hazel McCallion, mayor of Mississauga, who used to drop by Oscar’s home in that Toronto suburb. Not a figure you’d picture beside a pillar of jazz history (albeit an icon on her own).

There was lots of that at the concert. Former Ontario premier Bob Rae spoke of how the Raes, the Bill Davises, the Roy McMurtrys and the Petersons often gathered. Conjure that — and it isn’t even hard to do. There was something so Canadian about Oscar, in the precise sense of Mississauga.

I don’t mean there was a contradiction between his black, jazz soul and his Mississaugan Canadianness. The point is, there wasn’t. That’s the mysterious achievement of Canada, though it’s hard to say more without trying too hard. I also don’t mean there was no racism in his life — there was plenty, from restricted hotels when he toured as a teen phenom with a white band, to harassment outside his home lately. But it didn’t pre-empt his life, as it can elsewhere.

None of this Canadianness impeded him from standing at the centre of global jazz. Herbie Hancock, who came for the concert, called Oscar his lifework’s inspiration. I saw a recent web posting by Gilad Atzmon, the Israeli-born jazzman and dissident, who said the figures that drew him out of a right-wing Israeli upbringing were Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, Hank Mobley, Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson and Duke Ellington. It’s hard to see the other names in this array stepping out with the Raes, Davises, et al. (But who really knows?)

It also reminded me how, for a certain generation of (mainly white) men, jazz was a kind of religion. They tended to miss the 1960s by a tad, having accepted conventional roles in family, career and community. But jazz nourished them in their depths. You’d see them at the (late) Top of the Senator, bobbing their heads slightly, as if ascending through the spheres. Harold Innis wrote that in ancient societies, “oral tradition and religion served almost the same purpose.” There was something of the oral tradition in Oscar’s great trios and quartets, or his ineffable piano dialogues with Count Basie: deferential references to the past, discreet discussions of its hidden meaning.

Blockbuster busted: The cavernous Blockbuster on Bloor Street in Toronto closed suddenly this week — papered over, without warning. Vanquished, it seems, by personable local operations (such as Queen Video and Suspect). It was half a block from Dooney’s Cafe, which, 10 years ago, fought the only victorious battle on the planet against a Starbucks takeover. At the time, there were calls of: Okay, next we get Blockbuster! But it was a wan cry — the power of corporate chains seemed irresistible and, worse, unimpugnable. They weren’t just inevitable, they were unimpeachable. Now, they don’t get cut the same slack — take all the recent dissing of Wal-Mart. The fate of globalized capital is starting to seem as questionable as that of Soviet-style communism about 20 years ago. What could possibly replace it? Search me.

Meanwhile, Book City on Bloor, right next to the departed Blockbuster, having survived the onslaught of Chapters and Indigo, burns bright till 10 each night. Vive small business, and all those places where everybody (or someone) knows your name.

Another local boy: Well, from Montreal, like Oscar, then by way of CBC and Ontario’s Stratford Festival in the 1950s. William Shatner had a good episode on Boston Legal this week. His character, Denny Crane, The Legend, actually was brilliant in court, to his own shock and relief. How has Bill Shatner become the iconic piss-takeouter of American pomposity and pretence on so many levels? By being from here. He was able to go among them, pass, enter their bloodstream, become one of them, surely in his own mind too — yet retain enough sense of apartness to ridicule it all. That’s why he’s lasted there more than half a century.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.