OTD: First Toronto Jazz Festival opens

On today’s date in 1959, the first major jazz festival kicked off in Toronto, Ont., featuring internationally renowned jazz legend Oscar Peterson.

In 2005, Canada Post commemorated the life and achievements of Peterson with a 50-cent (then the domestic rate) multi-coloured stamp (Scott #2118). The date of issue, Aug. 15, marked Peterson’s 80th birthday.

Printed by the Canadian Bank Note Company on Tullis Russell Coatings coated paper using seven-colour lithography, the stamp measured 32 mm x 32 mm and had general tagging along each side. Canada Post commissioned Montréal photojournalist Gilbert Duclos, a well-known street photographer, to photograph Peterson. Esteemed stamp designer Tiit Telmet, of the Toronto firm Telmet Design Associates, worked on the graphic design and composition.

Peterson was born and raised in the St. Henri district of Montréal, where he and four siblings, whose parents emigrated from the West Indies, learned about music in the family home. Peterson’s father was a self-taught musician that worked as a porter on the Canadian Pacific Railway. When he was away from work, however, he taught his children about music, encouraging them to explore all it had to offer.

Peterson began to study piano and trumpet when he was five years old but tuberculosis weakened his lungs and ended his trumpet playing.

Peterson was also commemorated on this stamp issued by Austria in 2003.

Peterson was also commemorated on this stamp issued by Austria in 2003.

All of Peterson’s effort went to playing piano, and from 1943-47, he was the featured soloist – and first Black member – of the Johnny Holmes Orchestra, a Montréal dance band. When a noted U.S. promoter heard Peterson play in 1949, he was so impressed he arranged for the young Canadian pianist to perform later that year in a jazz concert at Carnegie Hall.

Peterson formed his first trio with guitarist Barney Kessel and Ray Brown on bass. Herb Ellis later replaced Kessel in the trio, which toured and earned widespread fame in the 1950s.

By 1960, Peterson and three other musicians formed the Advanced School of Contemporary Music in Toronto; however, a few years later, his career demands forced Oscar to pull out of the venture.

In 1964, Peterson produced his best-known work, Canadiana Suite, in which a different region of Canada inspired each of the album’s tracks.

He has recorded nearly 200 albums altogether.

Peterson was made a Companion of the Order of Canada and awarded the Glenn Gould Prize as well as the UNESCO International Music Prize. In 2003, the Austrian government honoured him with a commemorative stamp. He has also been the recipient of honorary degrees from more than a dozen universities and was chancellor of York University from 1991-94.

In 1959, at what’s considered the first Toronto Jazz Festival, Peterson was joined at the Canadian National Exhibition grandstand by more than 30 local and international artists, including fellow Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductee Maynard Ferguson and special guest Louis Armstrong. That year is considered by many to be jazz’s golden age and one the greatest eras in the history of music. Remarkably, Peterson released 15 albums in 1959 alone, including The Jazz Soul of Oscar Peterson.

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