Director Barry Avrich on the making of his Oscar Peterson documentary
How did the TIFF premiere go?
I couldn’t have been happier. We had a couple of live performances, including Jackie Richardson singing Hymn to Freedom as well as Denzal Sinclaire. It was amazing. We were surprised to have the great Oliver Jones attend; he happened to be in Toronto. He hugged me and wept after, and just loved it. Of course, no one in that room was closer to Oscar than Oliver Jones, aside from Oscar’s wife Kelly. It was a great night.
Tell me about your relationship with Oscar Peterson before you started this process. What was your in-road?
I grew up in Montreal and my parents had six records. A couple of them were Oscar Peterson — Oscar Peterson Plays Duke Ellington and of course Night Train. There was nothing else to do, so I would listen to those albums. When I was 11, my mother took me to see Oscar at Place des Arts in Montreal. I was blown away by the music. I had no idea he was even from Montreal. And then many years later when I moved to Toronto, a friend of mine reintroduced me to jazz, because I had gotten lost in the bands of the ‘80s. Chuck Mingus, Dave Brubeck, Maynard Ferguson, Coltrane and Miles, and there was Oscar all over again. It was a 360 for me to come back and make this film.
You said that it’s an era in which icons are often forgotten when we need them the most. It almost seems like there was a personal reason for you to want to get this on the screen, at a time when we need people to be guiding lights for us.
I made the film because I was thinking about my mother who’s 92 … I went back to that culture she introduced me to. And Oscar stood for something. The music and the words stood for something. We don’t have a lot of that writing and composition anymore. Even if you listen to Hymn to Freedom, those words resonate tremendously. It’s why I wanted to make the film and it’s why I wanted to feature that song, which Obama chose for his first inauguration. He could’ve chosen anything, but he chose that composition to say hey, have things really changed? Not really.
Of course, music is meant to be heard and you can hear the incredibly virtuosity of Oscar when you listen to the records, but to see him behind the piano and watch his hands do what they do while he’s playing, there’s something magical about that visual. You have people in the documentary like Billy Joel, who talk about how you can’t discern what’s going on because it’s at such a high level. I found it’s quite powerful to see him do his thing.
He’s like the greatest athlete performing at his peak. His hands, it’s like surgical precision and yet so effortless. Everybody looks for the drama and the drugs and the scandal, and I think that’s why his life gets a little overlooked, aside from the fact that he chose to come back to Canada, where artists … don’t get their due in the industry that they came from and reinvented.
Were there any surprises that you learned?
Nobody is surprised that there’s tremendous division and racial discrimination in the world today; they’re not surprised that there’s civil unrest that really hit a peak if not today then in the ‘60s. But I was not aware of the horrendous treatment of musicians on the road until I saw Green Book, and when I started to research for the film about Oscar, I saw that he encountered it at tsunami levels. I think the most amazing, disturbing thing was that Oscar would hit the road and there’d be incredible adulation for him in the South … and they would love him, until he wanted to shake their hand, until he wanted to hug them, because he was so thrilled that he reached them. They’d go, “Hey, I love your music, man, but I’m not going to hug you and I’m not going to shake your hand,” amongst other, more violent episodes. So, that was not surprising to me, but it was certainly moving. The other thing … was his generosity to his fellow musicians. Whether it was Roy Eldridge or Herb Ellis or Ray Brown or David Young, it was always about them. It wasn’t about him. The sum of all parts. Often you see artists, whether it was Buddy Rich or Miles Davis or James Brown, it was always about them. Not in Oscar’s case.
You’ve done a lot of documentaries. There are a lot of great folks who showed up to talk about Oscar for this, some who might surprise people. How easy was it to corral these people?
You know, I got lucky. My subject matter was fantastic. If you did the six degrees of why Oscar meant something to your career, whether it be Billy Joel, Branford Marsalis, Ramsey Lewis or Herbie Hancock, they had a direct line to Oscar. That was part of the puzzle. The second part was the luck. We made this film in seven months during Covid, and these artists were available. They weren’t touring. So, I got lucky that they were available, and so it wasn’t too much of an arm-twist. I think of anybody I wanted but couldn’t get, it was Chick Corea, because he sadly passed.
There was an inclusion of these contemporary Canadian artists threaded throughout the documentary. Jackie Richardson, Denzal Sinclaire, Joe Sealy, Dave Young, Larnell Lewis and Robi Botos… Why was that an important element you wanted to put into the documentary?
I wanted something a little bit different in the film. I knew there’d be a lot of Oscar performance, but I wanted to go deeper. I had seen a wonderful documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown in 2002 at [TIFF]. There were these wonderful interludes with the Funk Brothers, who were the backline to Motown in those days. I never forgot that. I also wanted to showcase some of the legends in this country like Joe Sealy, Jackie Richardson and Dave Young, but also to shine a light on younger artists … to show that it doesn’t matter what age you are, or what generation — Oscar influences everybody.
This interview has been edited and condensed.