Oscar Peterson Jazz Festival: 2nd Annual Festival Something To Get Jazzed Over

Oscar Peterson Jazz Festival: 2nd Annual Festival Something To Get Jazzed Over

By David DeRocco

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You don’t have to know jazz music to know the name Oscar Peterson. However, attending Niagara’s 2nd Annual Oscar Peterson International Jazz Festival is certainly a great way to learn more about both.

 Peterson, of course, is the Canadian jazz pianist and composer who was called “the Maharaja of the keyboard” by fellow jazz legend Duke Ellington. The Montreal-born Peterson is considered one of the greatest jazz pianists ever, releasing over 200 recordings, winning eight Grammys and being forever immortalized in statue form as a tribute to his 60 year career. It’s fitting then that his name continues to live on with a festival in the heart of Niagara wine country.

 “The Niagara Region is such a picturesque place, a lovely spot for a festival,” suggests Kelly Peterson, the festival’s Artistic Producer and wife of the Canadian legend. “It’s also a central spot for people who might be coming from New York City, upstate New York, Ohio, Chicago or Michigan. That’s the hope with an international jazz festival. You want to make it a destination. People travel to jazz festivals like Montreux or Monterey, and that’s part of the appeal of hosting it in the Niagara Region.”

 Peterson says last year’s inaugural event exceeded expectations, attracting people to the region from Boston, Chicago and NYC and areas across Southern Ontario. It also helped give festival organizers some valuable insights into what it would take to make this year’s three-day sequel even better.

 “It was extremely successful, and while it wasn’t necessarily a lesson learned, we did realize we need to be mindful that success comes from a lot of hard work and dedication,” said Peterson, who married Oscar in 1987. “As such we’re maintaining a level of excellence Oscar always strove for, bringing diversity to the festival, presenting the best artists and featuring the most important jazz musicians we can. We have to make sure to keep that level of excellence.”

 The 2019 International Oscar Peterson Jazz Festival certainly has a line up to achieve those objectives. Opening night at Niagara-on-the-Lake’s St. Mark’s Anglican Church hall, for example, will include the JUNO Award-winning Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra featuring trumpeter Ingrid Jensen.

 “This is an all Canadian band lead by a woman and featuring another woman, which is unusual,” suggests Peterson. “Women in jazz as instrumentalists and leading bands is still unusual, but these are Canadians recognized internationally who are respected and admired. Here’s an opportunity to come and hear them at St. Mark’s Church, an intimate setting that’s up close. That’s exciting.”

 A highlight of opening night will be the world premiere of Jensen’s tribute to Oscar Peterson, an original composition commissioned by the festival called “Something In His Smile.” For Peterson, who lost her beloved husband in 2007, the tribute will have special meaning.

 “I have not heard it yet, but I am looking forward to it. Christine said she might be interested in writing a special piece about Oscar, as she was such an admirer and had such respect for him. So we commissioned her to write the piece. The title certainly captures him, as his smile was something that just radiated and came through his music. It’s exciting to be able to present a world premiere on opening night.”

Besides the opening night headliners, this year’s festival features a who’s who of contemporary jazz, including Kenny Barron, Bill Charlap, Niki Haris, Joe Lovano, Kirk MacDonald, Russell Malone, Lewis Nash, Jeremy Pelt, Renee Rosnes, Reg Schwager, Neil Swainson and Peter Washington. And if you don’t know those names, don’t despair: even if everything you know about jazz came from a screening of La La Land, Peterson says the festival provides an incredible opportunity to dispel misconceptions about the genre while discovering the diversity, energy and sheer joyfulness of swinging jazz played live at all three venues.

 “That’s one of the things that’s very exciting, because to be up close and hear this quality of music in not huge venues adds another layer of enjoyment to the music. The excitement is contagious and will fill the hall and the winery and the church. I think the biggest misconception people have is that they won’t understand it, or they feel it’s too intellectual or esoteric perhaps. True swinging jazz is very melodic, and it’s the kind of music that makes it almost impossible to sit still. What we’re presenting is no the more avant-garde or free form style. We’re focused on pure swinging jazz. I don’t think there’s a lot to understand. It’s just something to come and enjoy and feel the happiness that comes with the music!”

 For a full schedule of festival performances, visit:  https://www.opjazzfest.org/.