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A piano, a bass and a legacy: An exploration of Ray Brown and Oscar Peterson

Jazz is a music genre that is so ingrained in our pop culture’s fabric that we can forget just how important and influential it actually is – at least, if you’re someone like me, who has gleaned the majority of her jazz knowledge from the movie La La Land.

 With the latest Jazz @ the Jacobs concert a tribute to Jazz godfathers Ray Brown and Oscar Peterson, I decided into dive into their legacy.

Oscar Peterson is considered one of the most prolific jazz pianists of the era. His technique and fleetness of touch landed him a place on the same stage as other giants such as Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald. Peterson was often referred to as the “maharajah of the keyboard,” an unofficial title given to him by Duke Ellington. With a career spanning more than five decades, Peterson amassed eight Grammys and almost every honor in the jazz world. He was known for his meticulous and sometimes even overwhelming technique.

Jazz bassist Ray Brown had an equally prolific jazz career and was considered to be one of the best jazz bassists of all time. His work landed him on the same stage as Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra and Nancy Wilson. With a career that spanned several decades, he was featured on more than 2,000 recordings – from almost every genre, too. According to The New York Times, Brown “took the bass beyond its traditional ‘thump-thump-thump’ to a much more sophisticated technique” – but his musicianship always held onto a soulfulness which he called “the grits and the gravy.”

Naturally, when these two highly reclaimed musicians worked together, they produced some of the most influential and exciting jazz music of all time. From 1951 to 1966, the pair was in the Oscar Peterson Trio, which often controversially featured white guitarist Herb Ellis. It’s interesting to note that while together, the trio faced difficulty booking shows due to segregation laws – despite being heralded as a top jazz trio of their day. This trio brought all three musicians to their highest level – in Peterson’s own words, he described his work with the trio as “the most stimulating.”

It’s this stimulating music we’ll be exploring and honoring on February 24. Brown’s own protégé and legacy-keeper John Clayton will perform on Brown’s bass and Brown’s final pianist, Larry Fuller, will be performing. As two masters of their instruments, it was always the passion for jazz music that exuded both Peterson and Brown. As Peterson said in 1997: “When I sit down to the piano, I don’t want any scuffling. I want it to be a love affair.”

And it certainly was a lifelong love affair.

Catch Affinity: A Tribute to Ray Brown and Oscar Peterson at the Jacobs Music Center at 8 p.m. on February 24.

This post was written by Kelly Hillock, marketing assistant for the San Diego Symphony.

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