Oscar Peterson Photo by Patti Gower/Toronto Star

By Ron Wynn

NASHVILLE, TN — Among modern jazz pianists, Oscar Peterson ranks near the top. His facility, speed, harmonic flair and rhythmic imagination astonished both musicians and fans throughout his extensive career. Now the documentary “Oscar Peterson: Black + White” on Hulu offers a portrait of Peterson’s musical brilliance while also spotlighting his personal and political life.

It was filmed by Barry Avrich and released last week to Hulu as part of their Black History Month Celebration. Among the many interesting elements of Peterson’s life was the fact though he was born and raised in Montreal, Canada, Peterson composed one of the anthems of America’s Civil Rights struggle.

Avrich covers Peterson’s rise to stardom, profiles some of his finest groups and gets comments, remembrances and assessments from numerous musicians, as well as New York Times jazz critic Giovanni Russonello. He also doesn’t shy away from some difficult aspects of Peterson’s life, most notably instances of adultery. 

Journalist Sandy Kenyon told Yahoo he was glad he saw Peterson perform at NYC’s Birdland club before the musician died in 2007. He’d suffered a stroke and began slowly, but by the third or fourth number, he played with amazing power and soared to greatness for an unforgettable performance. “I am a jazz pianist,” Peterson liked to say. “That’s all I want to be.”

The film also includes reflections from some unexpected quarters, notably Billy Joel, a longtime Peterson fan. “I didn’t know that music could be played that fast off the top of your head,” Joel said. He also acknowledges being thrilled to discover that Peterson was in the audience at one of his New York concerts. “A guy comes in and says Oscar Peterson is in the audience,” Joel recalled,”Sure he is was my reaction. But he actually came to see me.” “Oscar Peterson is what Muhammed Ali meant to boxing and what Michael Jordan meant to basketball,” Ramsey Lewis, another legendary jazz pianist, added. 

Indeed it was the reaction of his fellow musicians that Avrich said informed him most about Peterson during the course of making the film. “I was astounded at how generous he was to his other musicians, it was never ‘The Oscar Peterson Show,’” Avrich said.

Lewis added “he was a musician’s musician, but at the same time, the average person just loved the way he sent the piano keys out into the audience and said, ‘now get this, feel this.’”

Peterson wrote his powerful work “Hymn to Freedom” after experiencing harsh racism during a Southern tour. Historian Rosemary Sadler said the composition “became the anthem for the Civil Rights movement in the United States and across the world.” A choir performed It at the first inauguration of President Barak Obama. “It’s called a hymn,” Lewis said. “But there’s music for the soul. There’s music for the mind and music for the body. it’s a great piece of work.”

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