Oscar Peterson on the Jazz Scene in 1954


Oscar Peterson (1925–2007)

(Photo: DownBeat Archives/Verve)

I have long been disturbed about what I’ve seen of the state of mind of the average young jazz musician around the country, especially in New York. The general mass of jazz musicians, for one thing, have become so ingrown with regard to the music they’re playing and are associated with, that a very unhealthy atmosphere is being bred.

There are so many groups that are unhappy with what they’re doing, that are unhappy with everything. They’ve gotten into an attitude where nothing means much anymore. They have no outside interests. They’re just musicians and know of nothing else. With some, it becomes so bad they know of nothing else except themselves.

I hear a young talent in a city I play, and almost invariably, I’ll come back a few months later, and the talent’s been washed away by a number of bad activities. So many things are going the wrong way; and so few the right way.

Parents’ Attitude Cited

I can remember when a lot of parents would go along with their children’s interests in jazz, but since the recent newspaper stories and mishaps among musicians, jazz today isn’t encouraged by parents. The reason is that the parents feel that jazz is not a healthy enough a profession today. And many of the men in it have made it that way.

That applies to the whole jazz scene. If, God forbid, I should lose a man, it would be very hard to replace him. I’d have to find out whether a possible replacement was personally straight. I’d actually have to screen him. It wasn’t like that years ago. There were always plenty of good musicians you could use, and you didn’t have to go around and ask, “Is he straight?”

I don’t enjoy discussing this, and I’ve always avoided talking about it in radio or magazine interviews, but I’ve come to realize that you can’t just look the other way and hope it’ll go away. These people have created a monster they’ll never destroy.

Encouraged By Imbeciles

And I should add that a lot of guys who have gone that way have been encouraged by the imbecilic cultists. I mean the ones who say that if one of their favorites blows well, he’s always the greatest, all the time. That’s the biggest falsehood ever told.

That mistaken attitude leads to the fact that regardless of what a man has done to himself to destroy his talent, the cultist keeps saying that man is still the greatest. And so, they keep on encouraging him in his self-destruction.

Speaking of the musicians themselves with regard to what caused this present-day scene, I would say that among the contributing factors has been too many false pedestals, biased opinions and staid minds. This false worship of one’s self has been combined with the feeling that what is duly and rightfully owed one in terms of appreciation and recognition has been denied. It’s hard to converse with them—they’re always complaining.

Appreciates Feeling

I can appreciate the feeling of not being recognized, of one’s work not being appreciated. But the answer is to work harder and fight to get recognition through your work. It’s a matter of a half-a-loaf being better than none, especially when the none is self-destruction.

The healthy spirit of competition is gone. It has been replaced by animosity, envy and slothfulness. There are so few jazz musicians left like Billy Taylor who are honestly eager to do something, who get a kick out of what they’re doing, who are not biased in their attitudes.

A man’s personality shows up in his music. If frustration has formed a cold attitude in a man, he plays that way. And he plays disjointedly—one way one night and another the next night. The way you play music is a tonal biography of yourself, your thoughts and feelings.

The other night, Gerry Mulligan was telling me that our trio is the happiest group he’s heard or seen for some time. Well, I don’t see how you can project happiness in music unless you’re happy yourself and happy with what you’re doing, as we are.

Happiness Gone

I honestly believe that a lot of the happiness that used to be so much a part of it has left jazz. Bands like Duke Ellington and Count Basie and the Benny Goodman quartet and sextet had an honesty and genuine fire you rarely hear in jazz today. And one reason modern music is so hard to sell for a lot of groups is that very coldness. Some musicians give the listeners the feeling: “Be glad you’re here, that you’ve been allowed in.”

They’ve slumped into the kind of low mental state that helps account for the high narcotic rate among the so-called intelligentsia of modern music.

And it’s reflected not only in the attitude on stand, but also in the unpressed clothes, the unkempt appearance—and the worried relatives. A person like that can contribute nothing to music of any sort.

The present scene has affected me so that I would honestly like to bring my career, such as it is, to a successful close at the opportune time and just sort of forget some of the monsters I’ve seen in the business. When that time comes, I’d like to leave music and go into the field of photography and also sound.

Enjoys Work

When I say that, I don’t mean I’ll retire in the very near future. With me, it’s a case of my enjoying the work I do now with the group and enjoying being with them outside of work. So, it’s not my own group that bothers me; it’s what I see around me.

I have never been so appalled with conditions in my life. And especially in New York ... . It’s unbelievable. I’ll probably be asked why I single out New York as being so particularly bad. I think the reason is the city is so overcrowded with musicians.

It’s so hard ... for musicians there to establish themselves, because so many of them are all on the scene at once, and so many of them can do the same kind of thing almost as well or as well as many other musicians. New York, therefore, is a frustrating place for the young musician who goes there with great aspirations.

Gotham Overrated

I think, too, that New York has been highly overrated as being a jazz mecca. In the past year or half-year, I’ve heard so many new things and so many good things coming from the West Coast. A lot of musicians in New York have lost their feeling for experimentation or the cultivation of anything in the way of good sound or modern sound.

They’ve lost all kind of respect for the fact that if you’re going to build a group, you don’t just assemble all-stars and have somebody write a melody line. You have to nurture and cultivate a group like you would a baby.

That was the way big bands used to be regarded, too. One reason there are so few good big bands today is that attitude toward building has fallen so.

Take our trio as an illustration of what I mean by building a group. Here are three guys who, first of all, have respect for each other’s talent and endeavors. All three have the desire to produce something that’s good, and all of us realize how much work and preparation has to go into making a real unit. Yet, we lead three happy lives on the bandstand, musically, and off the bandstand, personally.

Can’t Understand Them

I can’t understand other groups I’ve seen where each man comes in and leaves individually, and you don’t see them together at intermissions. It ends up in the way they play—they very seldom do anything well together. In fact, among present-day musicians, there is so little conception left of how to live with one another.

All of us in the trio have other interests besides music. I’m a firm believer in diversified interests. I love music, believe me, but I couldn’t spend 23 or 24 hours consecutively just in music. That’s why I’ve gotten so much out of traveling—like with Norman Granz—and out of photography and other things.

When I first came down to the United States from Canada, I came with stars in my eyes. When you hear great artists, as I did on records, you inevitably build up a certain amount of personal respect for them. But when you see some of them, it’s apt to be another thing altogether. Your dream is shattered and your respect washed away. How can you build respect for someone who doesn’t hold respect for himself?

Respect For Dizzy

One man I do respect very much is Dizzy Gillespie. As much as he’s been called a trend starter and the head of various cults, Diz is one of the straightest-thinking musicians I’ve come in contact with. He’s one of the most level-headed men I’ve met. I know Dizzy has been one of the greatest inspirations in my life, speaking of modernists. And I know anyone who gets to know him will feel as I do.

With Dizzy, there’s a happiness projected from his music, a vibrant personality. I have seen him in front of a band, and that was one of the great moments in my life. He is one of the greatest bandleaders of them all, a man who can fire a whole orchestra. But he’s one of the few in jazz today with that kind of fire.

If you stop to realize the great jazz things that preceded the period we’re in now, this is a nightmare era. As a result, so much of the stuff today is way out of kilter. For example, I’ve heard so many bad records in recent months.

I used to be able to go out and buy close to $100 worth of jazz recordings, and I’d gotten something. But you can’t do that today if you’re a discerning person, unless a lot of it is reissues.

Can’t See It

As for the future of the jazz scene, people say things are getting better. But honestly and truthfully, from what I see, the way it’s going, any real change seems to be far off. I don’t think you can any longer help the condition in the mass, but individuals can be helped, and that in time might bear on the mass.

I hate to say this, but the majority seems to be on another tangent. The only way you can help bring them back in is by helping and encouraging the younger musicians who are straight and who are trying to do something.

The young musician today wonders where he’s going from here, and sees no helping hand. It is these men who should be encouraged.

I know, for example, one fellow in Toronto who has one of the greatest groups I’ve ever heard—Phil Nimmons, a young arranger and clarinet player and composer. He’s organized a unit and is in the process of building it so successfully that I believe it will end up on records and create quite a stir in music circles in the States. He has a new approach, and you can feel the belief in his work and in the way he plays his work.

Silver Cited

Horace Silver is another young musician who could stand a whole lot of encouragement, because he has something to say.

I have five children who have, I hope, been brought up right, and I must admit that I have an inside fear that one of them might become a musician and become exposed to the sort of thing I’ve been discussing.

I wouldn’t discourage any of them who did want to go into music—my oldest daughter has already started studying. But I’ll certainly try to instill enough self-confidence in them, so that as long as their life span in music lasts, they won’t fall into the destructive attitude which is so prevalent today.

The jazz scene as it stands today, if it continues the way it’s going, is one that I don’t want to be a part of very much longer. DB