Oscar Peterson

Written by: Dan McElrath

Dan McElrath has performed concert-level piano technical services at Universities and Performing Arts venues for over 20 years. He has had concert training at the Yamaha school in LA and Steinway factory training in NY. He has been a Registered Piano Technician with the International Piano Technicians Guild for over 20 years and will bring a unique perspective and skill set to any piano he services.

January 16, 2023


In the summer of 1969, I was riding in the front passenger seat of our baby blue Volkswagen van. My dad was driving. A song came on the radio. It was a jazz pianist. My dad said, ”You know who is playing the piano?” I listened intently and then shrugged my shoulders. I was 10! How was I supposed to know?! “That’s Art Tatum,” he said, “You can tell by the incredible dexterity in his left hand and his occasional double-octave runs with both hands. Art Tatum was blind ya know. A pretty amazing feat for a blind guy.” Yeah, yeah, yeah.

This was a little game my dad liked to play with me when we were riding in the car. Name that piano player. Let’s see, there was Andre Previn, my dad really respected that he was also a trained classical pianist and conductor that could ALSO play jazz. A rare combination he would say. Dave Brubeck, modern bop jazz, a little outside the box, more west coast sound than swing. Erroll Garner, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, George Shearing, Bill Evans…the list goes on and on.

My dad had been a professional jazz pianist for about 15 years. Played totally by ear and was self-taught in the same way many early jazz pianists began. But at the age of 35, he traded his jazz lifestyle in for me, my sister, and my mom and became my dad and my life would never be the same because of it.

Another song began on the radio, the pace was fierce and the number of notes that poured out of the radio in such a short period of time was beyond my comprehension. I saw the twinkle in my dad’s eye and a slight grin. His facial features had given it away. There was only one pianist in the world that made him look like that. We did not use the acronym G.O.A.T. at that time but we were clearly listening to the greatest of all time as far as my dad was concerned. “That’s Oscar Peterson!” I shouted. “Yes, it is.” My dad said with great satisfaction.

Fate Simply Smiles at you

On June 16, 2000, I was in Chicago for a weekend of non-profit board training. I was leaving the hotel restaurant where I had just finished lunch and a poster caught my eye. It was an advertisement for the Ravinia Jazz Festival going on that very weekend. The final Sunday night performance was to be none other than Oscar Peterson. There are times in your life when fate simply smiles on you and you realize that whatever you must do to put your life on hold for an event then you must do! I had never seen Oscar live. So I changed my plane ticket home, rented a car, and waited like a child on Christmas for Sunday to come.

I got there early to see some of the other amazing performers but they were all just appetizers as I patiently waited for the main course. As many know, Peterson suffered a stroke in 1993 that significantly weakened his left side. Over time he did recover some of the use of his left hand but never to the degree he was able to perform prior to his stroke. In addition, his weight had always been an issue and though he had hip replacement surgery he was not very mobile and prone to pain. He was at least an hour late before he came out on stage. I don’t know why he was late but when he began to emerge on stage he was shuffling painfully toward the piano and almost lost his balance at one point.

Despite his obvious struggle, the crowd was ecstatic to see him, as was I. He sat down and began to play a gorgeous melancholic ballad. The whole scene overwhelmed me and brought me to tears. He certainly wasn’t the performer with fire flying from his fingers I had once heard but the sweetness and gentleness of every note he played was exquisite. It was a night I would never forget.

Summer Solstice 2010

On Summer Solstice weekend 2010 I was where I had been for 10 years in a row, the Seldovia Summer Music Festival. I came every year about this time to engineer sound for the festival and also to perform. 2010 had been a particularly talent-heavy event and as I was daydreaming about all the musical highs of the weekend I heard a boat in the distance of Jakolof Bay. Nancy Hillstrand, the owner of Coal Point Trading in Homer, AK, was about to ferry me over to her cabin in Sadie Cove to tune her piano.

Nancy was the quintessential Alaskan woman. Quiet, fiercely independent, and full of secrets most would never discover. I had tuned an old player piano she had at her Coal Point store for several years but had never been to her cabin in Sadie Cove. It was about 20 minutes of boating through Eldridge Passage before we made the turn into the Cove. Like much of Alaska it was wild and stunning. I don’t know for sure how many manmade structures are in the Cove but other than a fishing lodge and Nancy’s place I didn’t see any other sign of civilization there.

How on earth Nancy had built this cabin I do not know. It sits on the side of a steep tree-covered cliff that plunges into Sadie Cove. It really looks like 3 cabins stacked on top of each other connected by rope ladders and steep cabin ladders. The dock and first floor are where we disembarked. Once inside it was obvious the first floor was the kitchen and eating area. She led me up to the second floor where I thought the piano might be. But no, somehow or other she had managed to get this small Baldwin Acrosonic spinet upright piano to the 3rd story of this structure! As I began to get my tools out to begin the much-needed tuning I looked at the wall above the piano and there to my utter surprise was a signed photograph of Oscar Peterson! And as if that were not enough there was a copy of one of Oscar Peterson’s original compositions “Hymn to Freedom” sitting on the music desk of the piano.

Nancy had already left me to tune the piano before I made these discoveries. As I tuned the Baldwin my mind was flooded with all of my memories of Oscar Peterson throughout my lifetime. As it turned out, I knew “Hymn to Freedom” by heart and decided that when I finished the tuning I would play it for Nancy. It took a while to finish the tuning but once completed I sat down and began to play. My back was to the stairs leading into the room so I did not see Nancy sneak up and sit behind me. When I finished the song I turned around to pack my tools and I saw Nancy sitting there with tears in her eyes. She related to me how she had grown up in Toronto (Oscar’s hometown) and how her father had gotten the signed picture from Oscar for her birthday. We shared Oscar Peterson stories pretty much the whole trip back to Seldovia. Including Nancy and her love for Oscar Peterson, you never know what jewels you will find in some of the most beautiful and remote places on earth.

Image Credit: Oscar Peterson. (2022, November 4). In Wikipedia.

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