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Pianist, jazz great Oscar Peterson dies at 82

TORONTO (AP) _ Oscar Peterson, whose speedy fingers, propulsive swing and melodic inventiveness made him one of the world's best known and influential jazz pianists, has died. He was 82.

Peterson died at his home in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga on Sunday, said Oliver Jones, a family friend and jazz musician. He said Peterson's wife and daughter were with him during his final moments. The cause of death was kidney failure, said Mississauga's mayor, Hazel McCallion.

"He's been going downhill in the last few months," McCallion said, calling Peterson a "very close friend."

During an illustrious career spanning seven decades, Peterson played with some of the biggest names in jazz, including Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. He is also remembered for the trio he led with Ray Brown on bass and Herb Ellis on guitar in the 1950s.

Peterson's impressive collection of awards include all of Canada's highest honors, such as the Order of Canada, as well as seven Grammys and a Grammy for lifetime achievement in 1997.

"I've always thought of him as Canada's national treasure. All of Canada mourns for him and his family," said Jones.

"A jazz player is an instant composer," Peterson once said in a CBC interview. "You have to think about it, it's an intellectual form."

Peterson's stature was reflected in the admiration of his peers. Duke Ellington referred to him as the "Maharajah of the keyboard," while Count Basie once said "Oscar Peterson plays the best ivory box I've ever heard."

Peterson's keyboard virtuosity, propulsive sense of swing, and melodic inventiveness influenced generations of jazz pianists who followed him.

Herbie Hancock, another legendary jazz pianist, said Peterson's impact was profound.

"Oscar Peterson redefined swing for modern jazz pianists for the latter half of the 20th century up until today," Hancock said in an e-mail message. "I consider him the major influence that formed my roots in jazz piano playing. He mastered the balance between technique, hard blues grooving, and tenderness. ... No one will ever be able to take his place."

Jazz pianist and educator Billy Taylor said Peterson "set the pace for just about everybody that followed him. He really was just a special player."

The 20-year-old jazz pianist, Eldar Djangirov, said he wouldn't have become a jazz musician if he hadn't heard Peterson's records as a boy growing up in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan.

"He was the first I ever heard and my main artistic influence," said Djangirov, who included the fast-tempo Peterson tune "Place St. Henri" on his Grammy-nominated album "re-imagination."

Peterson's death also brought tributes from notable figures outside the jazz world.

In a statement, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he was adored by the French. "One of the bright lights of jazz has gone out."

Former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, a fan and friend of the pianist for decades, reminisced about inviting Peterson to a 2001 Ottawa event honoring South African leader Nelson Mandela.

Chretien recalled that Mandela glowed upon meeting the piano great.

"It was very emotional," said Chretien. "They were both moved to meet each other. These were two men with humble beginnings who rose to very illustrious levels."

Born on Aug. 15, 1925, in a poor neighborhood of Montreal, Peterson got his passion for music from his father. Daniel Peterson, a railway porter and self-taught pianist, bestowed his love of music to his five children, offering them a means to escape from poverty.

At 5 years old, Oscar Peterson learned to play trumpet and piano, but after a bout with tuberculosis, he chose to concentrate on the keyboards. During his high school years, he studied with an accomplished Hungarian-born classical pianist, Paul de Marky, who helped develop his technique and "speedy fingers."

He became a teen sensation in his native Canada, playing in dance bands and recording in the late 1930s and 1940s.

He quickly made a name for himself as a jazz virtuoso, often earning comparisons to jazz piano great Art Tatum, his childhood idol, for his speed and technical skill. He was also influenced by Nat "King" Cole, whose piano trio recordings he considered "a complete musical thesaurus for any aspiring Jazz pianist."

Jazz pianist Marian McPartland, who called Peterson "the finest technician that I have seen," recalled first meeting Peterson when she and her husband, jazz cornetist Jimmy McPartland, opened for him at the Colonial Tavern in Toronto in the 1940s.

"From that point on, we became such good friends, and he was always wonderful to me and I have always felt very close to him," she said.

American jazz impresario Norman Granz was so impressed after hearing him play at a Montreal club that he invited Peterson to come to New York for a concert at Carnegie Hall in 1949.

Jazz impresario and record producer Quincy Jones said it was a blessing to have worked with Peterson.

"He was one of the last of the giants, but his music and contributions will be eternal," Jones said.

In 1951, the pianist formed the Oscar Peterson Trio with a guitarist and bassist. When Ellis left the group in 1958, he replaced the guitarist with a series of drummers.

Peterson never stopped calling Canada home despite his growing international reputation, and probably his best known major composition is the "Canadiana Suite" with jazz themes inspired by the cities and regions of his native country.

But at times he felt slighted in Canada, where he was occasionally mistaken for a football player, at 6 foot 3 inches and weighing more than 250 pounds.

In 2005 he became the first living person other than a reigning monarch to be honored with a commemorative stamp in Canada, where streets, squares, concert halls and schools have been named after him.

Peterson suffered a stroke in 1993 that weakened his left hand, but not his passion or drive for music. After a two-year recuperation, he gradually resumed performances, and made a series of recordings for the U.S. Telarc label.

He kept playing and touring, despite worsening arthritis and difficulties walking, saying in a 2001 interview that "the love I have of the instrument and my group and the medium itself works as a sort of a rejuvenating factor for me."

"Until the end, Oscar Peterson could tour the world and fill concert halls everywhere," said Andre Menard, artistic director and co-founder of the Montreal International Jazz Festival where Peterson often performed.

"This is something that never diminished. His drawing power, his mystique as a musician, was so big that he remained at the top of his game until the end."

Peterson is survived by his wife, Kelly, and daughter, Celine.

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AP writers Charles J. Gans and Lily Hindy in New York contributed to this story.


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