Oscar Peterson: The Man and His Jazz by Jack Batten – A Review

Oscar Peterson cover

Called the “Maharaja of the keyboard” by Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson released over 200 recordings, won seven Grammy Awards, received the Order of Canada and is considered to have been one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time. This new biography from award-winning author Jack Batten, promises to tell Oscar Peterson’s story in a complete, compelling and sympathetic way. This is first biography of Oscar Peterson for young people.
 
This book is the story of a black kid from a Montreal ghetto who reached acclaim in the great music halls of the world.

Oscar Peterson is one of my favorite pianists, regardless of genre. His mastery of those 88 drums (to quote NRBQ‘s Terry Adams) is incomparable and a joy to listen to. So, I was quite pleased when an email from LibraryThing told me I had won an Early Reviewer copy of his latest biography written by Canadian author, Jack Batten, and published by Tundra Books.

I approached this book knowing very little about its subject. I’ve listened to many of Oscar Peterson’s records, but I didn’t know anything about him away from the instrument he affectionately called “The Box.”

Batten did a decent job of introducing me to the man, describing his upbringing in the Montreal neighborhood of St. Henri, his introduction to the piano by his father, Daniel, his quick rise to the national and then international stage by the time he was 24, and then his decades of success as one jazz’s greatest pianists.

This book is aimed at a younger audience. I’d recommend it to junior high and high school music students who are interested in learning something of one of jazz’s major icons. It’s an easy read and not an academic biography, by any means. The downside to that is that it’s lacking in primary research and source material and seems to gloss over elements of Peterson’s life that could have been worth delving into.

It could also be organized better. For example a mention of a crisis in Peterson’s second marriage is made without any explanation until several pages and another chapter later. There are plenty of photographs, which is a nice addition. However, they, too, could have been better organized, either appearing closer to the topics they were concerned with, or perhaps all being placed in a center section by themselves.

Those criticisms aside, it’s a pleasant, quick read that’s a good start to learning about the Maharaja of the keyboard.

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