New documentary tells the story of Montreal jazz master Oscar Peterson

“If you want to talk about the great jazz musicians of the world, you had better include Oscar Peterson,” says director

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Filmmaker Barry Avrich remembers a teak cabinet in his parents’ basement when he was growing up in Montreal in the 1970s. Inside were a handful of LPs: Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughn, Etta James , Ella Fitzgerald, and a comedy album starring Lou Jacobi, titled You don’t have to be Jewish . Then there was Night Train by the Oscar Peterson Trio, released in 1963.

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Avrich says that when he visited friends, they listened to Dire Straits, Supertramp, Boston and Styx. But at home it was jazz. “It was an interesting mix.”

This also somewhat explains Avrich’s decision to make Oscar Peterson: Black + White , a new documentary about the fellow Montrealer that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, followed by a release on Crave on October 22.

Besides leaving him alone with the family vinyl, Avrich’s mom – still with us at 92, he’s happy to say – took him to concerts at Montreal’s Place des Arts, a short metro ride away. from their house. “Anything that was on sale that she thought was important for me to see,” he explains of his choices. Nana Mouskouri, Pearl Bailey, George Shearing – “It was my musical MBA.”

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At the age of 10, he saw Peterson on stage and still remembers the generosity the performer showed to his fellow musicians. “I don’t know if it was just Oscar who thought he was nothing without them.” He shrugs his shoulders: “Maybe the Canadian in him. “

Avrich saw him again at the Blue Note in New York in the late 90s (Peterson died in 2007). “

After the idea hit him in late 2020, Avrich says Oscar Peterson: Black + White got together quickly. He lined up interviews with other jazz legends and musicians who saw themselves as fans. And while working during a pandemic created its fair share of problems, it also meant that people who might otherwise be on tour were suddenly available, even bored and eager to talk.

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“We contacted Billy Joel,” he recalls. “Yeah, if you can come to Sag Harbor, I’m home.” What about Tuesday afternoon? It was Sunday. So we ran to New York to do it. It worked in our favor. Others in the film include Jon Batiste, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, and Branford Marsalis.

Avrich also wanted the film to function as a “docu-concert,” with new interpretations of Peterson’s music by Canadian jazz greats like Denzal Sinclaire, Jackie Richardson and Measha Brueggergosman.

“Every time you do a documentary, you get this standard line in the review – ‘That’s a lot of talking heads,’” he says. “I’m not going to play recreations and this is not an animated film… so what can I do differently with this film which will not get 8,000 people talking about Oscar?” And the two things we wanted to do were… create these musical interludes with phenomenal Canadian jazz musicians who had been influenced by Oscar, and also find images that no one had ever seen before.

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To achieve the second goal, he turned to producer Mark Selby, “a guy who is himself a music custodian and a world-class pianist.” I said to him, ‘Nobody knows music better than you, so go ahead and get this stuff.’ “

Peterson in 1963, around the time he recorded Night Train.
Peterson in 1963, around the time he recorded Night Train. Photo from Radio-Canada archives

Selby scoured the CBC archives, but also gathered material from Sweden, Japan and elsewhere. “We wanted the film to be Oscar telling his story, not me telling his story and not a narrator… but let Oscar tell his story through every step and phase of his life.”

This included run-ins with racism and segregation in the southern United States. “The disconnect for him was coming off the stage after such extraordinary adulation and an audience that wanted to meet him but didn’t shake his hand,” says Avrich. “Oh, and by the way, if you want to use the restroom in that theater you just rented, you can’t. “

Avrich says he does Black + white taught him Hymn to freedom , a song he heard for the first time on the Night Train LP all those years ago, but hadn’t realized it was a hymn to the civil rights movement. “I did not know the story of Hymn to freedom . I knew the song; I didn’t know what inspired him. The film chronicles a time when Peterson and his manager Norman Granz had to confront an armed policeman who tried to prevent them from getting into a white cab.

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Avrich says he is honored that TIFF invited his film to premiere at the festival, although he wishes he had performed at the Princess of Wales Theater where the Dionne Warwick documentary Don’t make me anymore projected. Or better yet Roy Thomson Hall, which hosted the premiere screening of Shredded , about Alanis Morissette.

“Oscar had played at Roy Thomson Hall, his memorial was at Roy Thomson Hall. If we want to celebrate a Canadian artist, nothing wrong with the TIFF Bell Lightbox, but why aren’t we in a musical space? It was an oversight on the part of the film festival not to celebrate this great man in a music sanctuary.

Still, Avrich has been in the business long enough – 50 plus documentaries – not to let that happen to him. And he already has plans for a screening next year at Toronto’s prestigious Koerner Hall, which will include live performances before the film.

“If you want to talk about the great jazz musicians of the world,” he says. “so you better include Oscar.”

Oscar Peterson: Black + White is available through Crave starting October 22.

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