Thompson Egbo-Egbo on filling Oscar Peterson’s shoes

Oscar Peterson is one of Canada’s most honoured musicians and widely regarded as one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time.

Nine decades after the musical legend’s early years growing up in the predominantly Black neighbourhood of Little Burgundy in Montreal, Peterson is still remembered and revered for his legacy on music here in Canada and far beyond. And now, there’s finally a Heritage Minute dedicated to the great Oscar Peterson.

Toronto-based pianist and composer Thompson Egbo-Egbo portrays a young Oscar Peterson performing in the late 1940s in a new edition of Historica Canada’s well-recognized 60-second short films. Filmed in the fall of 2019, the clip was released this month as part of the organization’s observance of Black History Month.

Egbo-Egbo, who has released three recordings as a leader — including his latest, The Offering — is joined on stage by bassist Brandon Davis and drummer David Lowe as they portray the Oscar Peterson Trio performing at the Alberta Lounge.

Egbo-Egbo told us about what it was like to fill the shoes of one of Canada’s greatest musical icons.

What was your relationship with Oscar Peterson’s music when you were growing up as a young pianist?

I was pretty lucky. The first jazz album I was ever given was an Oscar Peterson album. It was West Side Story. I still listen to it now. That was one of my early introductions to jazz before I actually knew what jazz was. I started playing classical and then bridged over into that world. You can’t study jazz piano without studying Oscar, and that’s not being facetious — you’d miss out on quite a bit of learning if he’s not a part of that.

When the folks at Historica Canada reached out to you to take part in this, what were your feelings? What was your initial reaction to it?

My first thought was, I guess I need to lose a little bit of weight. My second thought was that’s cool. Let’s totally do this.

This is Oscar Peterson playing in the clubs in Montreal in the ’40s, an early part of his development.

It runs a bit of the gamut. You have him as a young boy learning piano, and then you have him playing in the Alberta Room, and so I think they’re just trying to capture the essence of his story, this home-grown talent and someone who’s really put the country on the map as a big influence on this music. They captured a few pieces of that.

Did you have to do any research for what was being asked of you, or did you just have to come and be the musician that you are?

Yeah, I kind of went into it blindly. That was probably better as well, not to put too much pressure on it. I’m not Oscar, right? The best I can do is to do my best to give that sense of feeling and that energy and enthusiasm that he brings to his music.

Filming it at Hugh’s Room Live, did you actually get a chance to play, or was it all staged?

We actually got a chance to play. They’re not using what we played, but we got to jam with each other. We did the simple and easy blues with each other, but we definitely were playing and having a lot of fun with each other up there.

You once said, “I was very fortunate when I was a kid, so I feel I kind of have a responsibility to be an example of how when you give a kid opportunities, it can lead to real results.” It feels like between you and Oscar, there’s some shared territory when it comes to paying it forward.

I think you’re right, and I appreciate you saying that. I’ve definitely, definitely been fortunate. Anyone who knows a bit of my background knows that I’ve always had people at every step to support me in my musical journey, professional journey or just my life journey. We all need that kind of help, and as Canadians we’re uniquely in a position where there’s so much support for members of our society; obviously, we can always do better in certain areas, but I’ve been someone who has benefitted quite a bit from the generosity of so many. It only makes sense that I do the same and support in areas where I can.

I can’t imagine the feeling of being Oscar Peterson in this Heritage Minute during Black History Month. There must be a lot of pride involved.

You know, we filmed it so long ago that I almost forgot that I had done it. When it popped back up on my radar, I said, “Oh yeah, that’s right! That’s cool! That’s cool!”

Did you get a chance to see it before it was released?

I did, and I like what they did with it. I think they’ve done a good job. And I think it’s about time. Initially when I was asked to do it, I thought to myself, Oh, they haven’t done one on Oscar yet?

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This interview has been edited and condensed.