Barry Avrich’s documentary Oscar Peterson: Black + White barely scratches the surface of the great jazz pianist’s life, music, and legacy.
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It’s hard to believe that we’ve yet to have a documentary on the life and work of the great Canadian jazz pianist Oscar Peterson — especially considering that TIFF annually programs docs on Canadian figures in the arts, from the band The Tragically Hip to the poet Al Purdy. Unfortunately, Barry Avrich’s Oscar Peterson: Black + White fails to do justice to the towering figure in twentieth century jazz by neither delving deep into his music nor his life. It’s a decent enough introduction to Peterson for the uninitiated, likely to get you to at least check out his work, but it offers precious few insights into his contributions to music and his technical prowess, and even skimps on showing us enough of his actual performances.
I grew up with Oscar Peterson’s music; his playing is what made me want to play the piano. Almost everyone interviewed in the film — from Branford Marsalis to Billy Joel — comments on how he played the piano as though he had four hands. We had a copy of Peterson’s sheet music for The Canadiana Suite, and it was a running joke in my household that it was missing half the notes. I even had the chance to see one of Peterson’s last live performances in the late 1990s, and like so many of the people interviewed in the film, I can attest that even with his loss of dexterity in his left hand, due to a stroke, he still played like he had three hands. This is all to say that, as someone who knew his music well, it was disappointing that I came in knowing more about it than the film even attempted to reveal.
There’s been a trend lately in documentaries about great artists, especially ones no longer living, to revive them by reviving their work through contemporary artists. In Ailey, a new dance is choreographed that pays homage to Alvin Ailey’s work; in Can You Bring It: Billy T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters, a group of contemporary dance students remount Jones’s famous piece “D-Man in the Waters.” Ailey and Can You Bring It at least hint at the way these choreographers’ work is passed through generations and shows their continuing influence.
In Oscar Peterson: Black + White, a group of Toronto jazz musicians — among them, pianist Robi Botos, bassist Dave Young — perform the music of Oscar Peterson at Koerner Hall in Toronto. Though excellent musicians who either apprenticed with or performed with Peterson, the fact is, nobody but Oscar Peterson is Oscar Peterson. Listening to Robi Botos play Peterson’s work is a poor facsimile for the real thing. And not all of Peterson’s students were the prodigies this legacy might suggest: I was never particularly impressed, for example, by Toronto bassist Brandi Disterheft, more pop than jazz, who also studied with Peterson. If you want to get people excited about Oscar Peterson and his music, you have to let people hear the man himself play it, not just the most well-known Toronto jazz musicians.
Avrich complements the live performance of Peterson’s work with interviews with supposed experts on jazz and his work, but the mix of people he’s chosen are perplexing at best, and useless at worst. Among the jazz musicians he interviews are saxophonist Branford Marsalis and pianists Jon Batiste Herbie Hancock. While fine musicians, none of them either plays in a style even remotely connected to Peterson, nor are they asked to talk about his work in any level of technical detail beyond how he sounded like he had four hands.
Consequently, Avrich fails to place Peterson’s work in the broader context of twentieth century jazz — his innovations, the traditions he belonged to — nor to explain how he has influenced musicians today. The closest descendent of Peterson’s style, from my perspective, is the Japanese pianist Hiromi, who is never interviewed. Avrich could have talked to a number of major contemporary jazz pianists in addition to Hancock, such as Brad Mehldau and Keith Jarrett, who could have talked both about Peterson’s technique and compositions and his influence on their work. Instead, Avrich talks to Billy Joel, because Peterson once attended one of his concerts.
The best parts of Oscar Peterson: Black + White are, unsurprisingly, the scenes of archival footage of Peterson playing his instrument, and even, occasionally, giving interviews. I learned some interesting biographical details I wasn’t aware of: he spoke French, insisted on remaining in Canada when the jazz scene was more prevalent in the United States and Paris, and was playing Montreal music halls at the age of seventeen. His music is infectiously joyful, and it made me want to immediately turn on his albums I hadn’t listened to in years; I’d hope it would encourage newcomers to his music to explore further.
Yet an inordinate amount of time is spent on minor biographical details that do little to illuminate his life. For example, the last third of the film focuses on the story of Peterson’s stroke and its effect on his career. His widow, Kelly Peterson, who appears in the film, is among the film’s producers, so her relationship with him in the last thirty years of his life would have been greatly affected by the stroke. But it’s more of a footnote in his legacy, and thus is dwelled on too much in a film that barely scrapes the surface on his wider impact within music. Instead of telling us about the unique position Peterson found himself in as a Canadian musician playing an African American art form, often in the US, Avrich merely reminds us that Peterson, of course, faced racism while on tour in the US — usually through cliched montages of signs in the Jim Crow-era South.
Ultimately, Oscar Peterson: Black + White is not the tribute documentary that Oscar Peterson deserves. It doesn’t go deep enough for existing fans nor does it offer enough of an introduction to what made him such an extraordinary musician. Still, it’s nice to see the footage of him collected here, and one hopes that another filmmaker — perhaps not another white filmmaker — will rise to the occasion and give us the documentary I only wish Avrich had delivered.
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