Ottawa sculpture honours Oscar Peterson


The late great Oscar Peterson regaled kings and queens with his keyboard brilliance in a celebrated career that spanned six decades.

It’s fitting that Queen Elizabeth II, who Peterson performed for at Roy Thomson Hall eight years ago during the Golden Jubilee Gala Concert, unveiled a bronze sculpture of the member of jazz royalty last week at Canada’s National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

Raised in Little Burgundy in Montreal, the renowned pianist and composer died of kidney failure at his Mississauga home in December 2007.

Historian and curator Dr. Sheldon Taylor compared the recognition to a Black Canadian being appointed Governor General or Lieutenant Governor.

“It’s quite an honour and it’s good even though it has come late,” said Taylor. “It’s sad that he’s getting the accolades now that he’s no longer with us and by a country that’s way behind the rest of the world in truly recognizing one of its own. Regardless, it’s an important milestone for jazz in Canada because Oscar gave his talent to the world and he reached distinguished heights.

“The recognition bestowed on him should not be taken lightly and it’s my hope that we begin to do the same with some of our other musical greats like drummer and teacher Archie Alleyne.”

In 2008, the Nationals Arts Centre commissioned Ruth Abernethy to create the 600-kilogram sculpture to commemorate the life and talent of Peterson who recorded over 200 albums, won seven Grammy awards, received 16 honorary 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.

“What a legacy piece,” remarked the prominent Canadian sculptor and designer. “It is the Olympics of portraiture, but it is a huge honour to work on a project where everyone did their very best to come up with this magically appealing public portrait and it has been a celebration from the get-go.”

Jazz FM 91 president and chief executive officer Ross Porter said Peterson deserved the honour because he was one of Canada’s best cultural ambassadors.

“Oscar Peterson is one of the reasons we should be proud to be Canadians,” he added. “In my mind, he raised the bar so high that he made it possible for most other pianists to pass under it.

“The important thing to remember is that Ottawa is a tourist attraction and there are going to be people that come from around the world that are going to see this sculpture. It’s going to be a reminder, oh yeah, Oscar was Canada’s. In addition to that, the thing I love about it too is that it’s interactive. Oscar is sitting on a piano bench with the piano in front of him, so there is an opportunity, there is just enough space on that bench, for people to be able to sit down next to Oscar and see the piano from his perspective and have photographs taken. It’s a beautiful thing.”

Several donors contributed to raising the $250,000 needed for the sculpture.

Peterson’s longtime friend Oliver Jones performed the jazz icon’s signature piece, Hymn to Freedom, at the lunchtime unveiling attended by Peterson’s wife Kelly and their daughter Celine.

“Ever since his passing, I have been made very much aware of the fact that he was not just my dad, but he was a music legend,” said Celine. “I have since been able to realize that he influenced way more people than just me and in more ways than one. Having the statue is a spectacular way to remember him both as the amazing human being that he was and the immeasurable musical genius that he was.”

Canada Post issued a stamp to honour Peterson five years ago, marking the first time that a living person – other than the reigning monarch – has been philatelically recognized.

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