Niagara-on-the-Lake resident and one-time Oscar Peterson protege joins Jeff Hamilton, Dave Young and Ulf Wakenius on April 30 for a Bravo Niagara International Jazz Day show April 30 at the First Ontario PAC. (photos supplied)
For Céline Peterson, growing up with a famous father was normal. After all, she didn’t really know any other way.
“My normal had some of the things that most would classify as that,” she tells The Local, “going to school and hanging out with friends. But it just also happened to include this unique job that one of my parents had that took me across the world for the first 16 years of my life.”
That parent, of course, was more than just famous. Oscar Peterson was a world-renowned legend on the piano. The unique job to which Céline refers included releasing some 200 albums, playing thousands of concerts across the world, collaborating with some of the biggest names in jazz, composing music and winning seven Grammy Awards. And of course, being one of the most well-known Canadians ever.
At the behest of Bravo Niagara! Festival’s co-founders Chris Mori and Alexis Spieldenner, Céline Peterson has curated an upcoming performance featuring some of her father’s favourite sidemen and his last major piano protege before he passed away at age 82 in 2007.
On April 30, drummer Jeff Hamilton, guitarist Ulf Wakenius, and bassist Dave Young join forces with JUNO Award-winning pianist and Niagara-on-the-Lake resident Robi Botos to celebrate International Jazz Day at the First Ontario Performing Arts Centre in St. Catharines. They’ll be playing music from Peterson’s canon.
“It’s an absolute dream,” Céline says of the lineup. “Just as Chris and Alexis and I were talking about what to do for International Jazz Day, I found out Ulf was going to be in town. He really loved playing the music he played with Dad. He was Dad’s last guitar player, during a really special, emotional time in Dad’s career.”
Bringing Botos in to take the piano chair was an obvious and inspired choice. Botos has been affiliated with Bravo Niagara! for a number of years, and performed most recently in a festival concert in late 2021. Botos opened for Peterson at the 2005 Montreux Jazz Festival and became a student of the master until his death.
“Robi has worked with all of these guys before,” Peterson adds. “Ulf, Dave and Jeff have so much respect for Robi. He and Dad had a really special bond for the time they got to spend together. Robi, like me, does not take his responsibility lightly.”
It might be a daunting task for Botos to take on the music of his mentor, but as Peterson explains, Botos plays Peterson’s music the way he wants to play it. He doesn’t try to copy Oscar, but instead plays to feed the others in the group. The St. Catharines concert will not be a copycat show, even though the music comes from the Peterson repertoire.
Céline says her father was really a typical Dad at heart while she was growing up. He wanted to go to the school concerts, the science fairs and other events, but his fame made those outings difficult for him.
“He really loved being a father, and he loved doing fun things with me,” she says. “We would have our daddy-daughter days, we’d go out for dinners together, he’d take me on day trips. He was very happy to be a home-body when he wasn’t working.”
Peterson says she never truly realized Oscar’s importance in the world of jazz music, or exactly how beloved he was, until she was 16 years old.
“The moment of realization came when he died,” she recalls. “Most other people experience that privately, and take control over their own grieving process. We didn’t have that. His death was leaked to a media outlet before we could even inform the people close to us whom we didn’t want to read about it in the news.”
The home phone was ringing off the hook, media outlets calling to confirm his death. Police cruisers guarded the family’s Toronto driveway for a week to watch over the house. It was a surreal invasion of the family’s privacy.
“Sharing that loss, without a choice, and everything that followed,” she stresses, “that’s where a lot of my realization came in. Even today, I’m not always thinking with the Peterson hat on, I’m thinking as a daughter, and I have to readjust and look at it through that lens.”
Asked about meeting some of the many stars who were part of Oscar’s orbit, Céline lists two as her most memorable.
“I was truly starstruck when Dustin Hoffman came to a concert at the Hollywood Bowl,” Peterson laughs. “I was still very young. He came backstage, and I got so excited. My Mom wanted to know why her 9-year-old knew who Dustin Hoffman was. It was because of the movie Hook.”
The other happened shortly before her father passed away. Stevie Wonder was playing a concert in Toronto. Though Oscar was not up to attending the show, Céline went and dropped off an invitation to the musician to visit the Peterson home.
“The next day his tour bus pulled up, taking up about the length of three houses on our street,” remembers Peterson. “He was actually nervous to meet Dad, someone he had admired his entire life. That was really special to see. I mean I was meeting Stevie Wonder, but Stevie Wonder was meeting Oscar Peterson.”
Through her business, Céline Peterson Productions, she has worked with the likes of Jackie Richardson, Molly Johnson, Oliver Jones and Paul Marinaro. Her bio states quite plainly, however, that she herself is not a piano player.
“There was pressure for me to play the piano,” Peterson says of younger days, “but none of it came from my family. It came instead from people on the outside. Dad never wanted any of his kids to do something they didn’t want to do. He certainly didn’t want any of us to feel we had to carry on his legacy. And he had a rule about never teaching family.”
Though she doesn’t do it at the piano, Céline has worked diligently to keep her father’s legacy alive through her work with jazz musicians and in organizing concerts like the one on April 30.
“The people who love his music carry it forward,” explains Peterson. “I actually had an email today from a young boy in sixth grade who is doing a project on him. That stuff brings me so much joy, because it’s proof of how strong his legacy really is.”
“I do feel a responsibility to ensure that anything I do, whether related to him or not,” she continues,” I do with the excellence that he brought to his life and career. And I take great pride in any project that is related to my Dad. It’s not something I take lightly at all. I want the things that I do that are Dad-related to be special.”
Peterson has certainly done that with the curation of the performance to take place in the First Ontario PAC’s Recital Hall. Botos, Hamilton, Wakenius and Young are at the top of their games as musicians. And Wakenius will be performing a special guitar duet with 2021 Juno Award winner Jocelyn Gould.
Concertgoers couldn’t ask for a more special night than to have this quartet celebrate the music of the man that none other than Duke Ellington referred to as the Maharaja of the keyboard.
For tickets and information visit bravoniagara.org.