I'll never forget the night I met Oscar Peterson. I was 17 years old; a high-school senior. A few weeks prior, I had talked my Dad into flying up to New York to see Oscar Peterson perform at Birdland, for what turned out to be his last New York performance.
We got tickets to both sets, and we got the good seats, right up front; my eyes lay maybe a foot from where Oscar's fingers touched the keys. Well...maybe it was a bit further, but that's what it felt like to me.
I had heard that Oscar's playing was only a shadow of what it used to be, but I didn't care. I just wanted to be in his presence. I just wanted to see him in person, and hear, in person, the sound of his fingers blanketing the keys.
I watched the curtain in anticipation for what seemed like forever - to be honest, it probably was; I made sure that my Dad and I got to Birdland about three hours before the show -. When he finally appeared, I was amazed, to say the least.
An interesting side-note is that when I was first getting into jazz, when I was 14 and 15, I had been listening a lot to Oscar Peterson, hadn't learned much jazz history yet, and, like many of my jazz heroes that I had been listening to and researching, I just figured he was dead. Maybe my believing that he was dead only added to his legend, in my book. Therefore, I remember the feeling that overcame me that night at Birdland, as Oscar walked toward the piano. To me, he was not only my favorite pianist, but a historical legend - and he was alive! And I was in his company. I felt so lucky.
His set was beautiful.
Sure, he couldn't play his fast runs like he used to (but who cared! We were listening to Oscar Peterson!), and sure, he repeated certain phrases again and again...It was interesting to look in eyes as he repeated a phrase. I could see in them a deep pain and frustration. I could see in them two different things: 1) a repeated phrase was often his reaching for something else - he could hear it all in his head, but his fingers wouldn't carry his thoughts, and 2) a repeated phase was also sometimes a reluctant give-in, like he was giving into, and sadly accepting his piano capabilities at that point. His eyes really said it all, and it was interesting to watch his face as a phrase was repeated. To me, I was overcome with joy at watching my hero but, watching him at these moments, it was extremely sad and often painful.
Even so, what he lacked in technique, he made up for with soft, delicate, and heart-felt emotion. The ballads were beautiful, and his touch was so soft, so smooth, so wonderful, and it was at those moments - the ballads - that I knew that Oscar was making the piano sound how he'd like it to.
When the first set ended and most of the house had cleared out, I asked the manager of the club if I could speak with Oscar, for he was my hero. "Of course," the man said. "Oscar's backstage and he wants to meet anyone who wants to meet him."
"How nice!", I remember thinking. The man led me backstage. There were about three people in line in front of me, one being Ron Carter. I remember the nervous anticipation I felt as I watched Oscar so humbly accept compliments. Even in his wheelchair he looked like a giant. I remember staring at his huge hands, knowing full well who elses' hands those had shaken. After Oscar took pictures with a few fans and spoke with Ron Carter, it was my turn.
I was lead to the empty seat right next to him and I sat down. I was so nervous that I didn't know what to say. I'm not even sure if I said "Hello" before exclaiming, "You're my hero."
He was just as nice as he could be. We shook hands and I told him that I was a young pianist, that he was my favorite, that I'd flown up from Atlanta just to see him. Upon hearing this he asked, in an almost painful manner - yet totally serious, which made me feel very sad for him: "Aw, you flew all the way up here just for that?" - noting that he was not happy with his performance. I told him that it had been a truly wonderful performance. It felt a little strange speaking these words of encouragement to my hero. He thanked me -even though he was his harshest critic and my words may have only comforted him a little bit, if at all-. His honesty about his performance taught me a lot; it really showed me what it means to be humble.
This was one of my first encounters with a jazz legend; one of the others being a few months earlier at a Keith Jarrett concert when Jarrett yelled at an audience member for coughing and yelled an exaggerated "thanks" to a loving fan as he hurried into his car from the backstage door of the concert hall. As I sat with Oscar, realizing full well all the amazing things he done in his lifetime, yet still so down-to-earth, friendly, honest, and grateful to his fans, I felt a sense of relief - knowing that this humility and honesty was still possible even for the greatest of men.
We took a picture and he signed an autograph for me. Then he put out his hand, shook mine, and looked me dead in the eye. "I want to wish you the best of luck with whatever you do in your future." I'll never forget that - he said it with such sincerity.
I will treasure those few moments for the rest of my life and am forever grateful that I got to look Oscar Peterson in the eye and tell him that he is my hero.