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A new film, 'Oscar Peterson: Black + White,' sheds new light on a jazz giant

Oscar Peterson
Herman Leonard
Oscar Peterson

With two hands, he could fly at the speed of sound — or quiet a room with the hush of his touch. Oscar Peterson was one of Canada’s brightest moments, whether sitting solo at the piano or alongside giants, including John Coltrane, Stan Getz, Sonny Stitt, Ben Webster, Clark Terry and J.J. Johnson.

He backed great singers like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, and spurred on drum battles between Buddy Rich and Max Roach. His friendship with Norman Granz put jazz in concert halls around the world as part of Jazz at The Philharmonic. And when Oscar Peterson’s genius was challenged by ugly racism, it inspired him to create the uplifting “Hymn To Freedom” — using jazz for justice, just like Granz.

Oscar Peterson: Black + White is a documentary making its television debut on Hulu on Tuesday, Feb. 15. It chronicles Peterson’s life with rare performance footage, interviews, and comments from the late Duke Ellington and Count Basie as well as living legends like Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock and Ramsey Lewis. (Branford Marsalis and Jon Batiste are among the others who have their say.)

Earlier this week I chatted with the film’s director, Barry Avrich, and one of its producers, Mark Selby, about Peterson and how this engaging documentary came to be.

In jazz radio, great announcers are distinguished by their ability to convey the spontaneity and passion of the music. Gary Walker is such an announcer, and his enthusiasm for this music greets WBGO listeners every morning. This winner of the 1996 Gavin Magazine Jazz Radio Personality of the Year award has hosted the morning show each weekday from 5:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. And, by his own admission, he's truly having a great time.