By RON FANFAIR
Young people in the Jane-Finch area and other designated priority neighbourhoods in Toronto who have an interest in music will be given an opportunity to learn about jazz and the legacy of Canadian jazz icon, Oscar Peterson.
American jazz trombonist, composer and educator, Ronald Westray, pledged to fulfill his mandate after being installed as the Oscar Peterson Chair in Jazz Performance at York University.
Peterson, the iconic performer/composer who Duke Ellington once referred to as the Maharajah of the keyboard, died in December 2007.
“A huge part of the endowment that the Chair represents is outreach for potential musicians and, more particularly, jazz students,” said Westray, who is one of the most highly regarded trombonists of his generation. “One of the main things I will be doing is bringing in area students to the campus to experience live jazz performances.
“They will also be given a chance to hear about Oscar’s legacy. We are targeting students in underprivileged areas and those that don’t have the financial resources to attend jazz classes. Reaching out to those talented students who have a financial need is a main part of the endowment…Those are the students we will be bringing in to experience his legacy by way of lectures and demonstrations.”
Westray comes to Toronto after spending four years as an assistant professor in the Jazz Studies department at the University of Texas. He said he jumped at the opportunity to move north of the border because the position was attractive.
“I was getting a little restless in terms of needing a bit more room to show off my teaching style,” he said. “I started looking for positions which would give me a little more headroom to do the things that I do best. The Oscar Peterson position, because of his legacy, really matches the type of credentials I have which are high performance-based both as an instrumentalist and composer. It just fits the bill for this stage in my career in terms of what I was looking for and the type of scope it has the potential to cover.
“This was my first choice and the position I wanted the most because it gives me a chance to contribute in some small way to the huge legacy that Oscar has left. Being able to add to that is an honour for me.”
In a celebrated career that spanned six decades, Peterson recorded over 200 albums, won seven Grammy awards, received 16 doctorates from universities across the United States and Canada, including York University where he served as Chancellor, and was made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1984.
Four years ago, Canada Post issued a stamp to honour Peterson, marking the first time that a living person – other than the reigning monarch – has been philatelically recognized.
Westray, who holds a Bachelor’s degree in Music from South Carolina State University and a Master’s from Eastern Illinois University, said Peterson was held in very high esteem in the United States even though he was a Canadian.
“Oscar was considered to be at the apex as a modern jazz pianist in terms of the way we view him,” said Westray, who is best known for his work as lead trombonist in the Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra conducted by Wynton Marsalis. “He’s right up there for his contributions and actually I think moreso American jazz musicians have to think twice about the fact that he was Canadian. We basically looked at him as an American in the way we thought about him. We did not see him as been separate or apart from the American legacy that took place at the time he was developing.
“In the minds of American musicians, I think that they do really claim him and that is just a testament to the degree to which guys really admired his work and his achievements. That’s huge.”
Westray, 39, is no stranger to Toronto, having performed at The Top of the Senator club in downtown Toronto in the mid-1990s and at other jazz and blues locations in the city.
“Toronto has always been one of my favourite cities and I have always had good experiences here,” he said. “Before I took up the Chair, I did not visit here for sometime, so I did not know what to expect in terms of living here. I must say, however, that I am totally amazed at the quality of life here. The treatment on campus has been regal and I am just having a blast and really getting into the swing of things.”
York University president and vice-chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri said the university is excited and honoured to have an artist of Westray’s caliber as the Chair.
“This Chair will enable us to further advance the quality of education for Fine Arts students and carry on the legacy of Oscar Peterson at York University,” he added.
In January 2008, the Ontario government made a $4 million endowment to help launch the Oscar Peterson Chair in Jazz Performance and contributed $1 million to establish music scholarships for talented students from underprivileged backgrounds.
“He (Westray) brings a wealth of talent and experience to the jazz performance program at York University and its students,” said Premier Dalton McGuinty. “Our government is happy to do its part to honour the memory of Oscar Peterson by helping gifted music students pursue their own dreams.”
York University offers jazz at all levels of undergraduate and graduate study, including a Master’s and PhD in the field.