Perspiration trickles down the face of the massive man at the piano, as his fingers alternately fly over the keys or dig deep into the notes with chords that would stir the hardest heart. A particular chord progression, and it’s easy to imagine the audience catching their collective breath as the pianist’s slow, measured notes burst forth into unbelievably fast broken chords. If one is sitting close enough to the stage, perhaps one can see the pianist mouthing a few of the words as his fingers call out the music from somewhere deep within him, deep within the piano, deep within the heart of humanity itself. “When everyone joins in our song and together singing harmony, that’s when we’ll be free…”
That song, Oscar Peterson’s Hymn to Freedom, moves me profoundly every time I hear it. How I wish I could have heard him perform it live. It’s powerful, powerful music.
Oscar Peterson was a Canadian, born and raised in Montreal in 1925. He began music lessons on the trumpet — the musical world was blessed the day he switched to piano. His skill and heart as a jazz pianist put him among the greats. In 1949, at the age of 24 (!) he was on stage as one of the musicians in Norman Franz’s “Jazz at the Philharmonic” at Carnegie Hall. The biographical information on the Oscar Peterson website states that he left the audience “awestruck.” I can well imagine it. For the full biography, please click this link.
He was a composer as well as a pianist, and wrote — or felt into being — many songs that have become jazz standards. Hymn to Freedom became more than that. It became one of the anthems of the civil rights movement, with the lyrics that were written for it by Harriette Hamilton. The story of the birth of that stirring song is told, as recalled by Peterson himself, on the website.
I have sung this moving hymn with a choir, I have performed it on the piano (although my fingers were not capable of giving the music its due), I have heard it performed by others, including the wonderful jazz pianist and singer I will be highlighting next week, and I have listened to recordings of Oscar Peterson countless times. It never fails to move me.
Oscar Peterson died in 2007. His legacy lives on in the music he wrote, the recordings he made, the lives he touched as his powerful fingers hushed audiences with those unmistakable chords.
You can hear another Montreal jazz pianist, Oliver Jones, pay tribute to Oscar Peterson in the rendition of Hymn to Freedom played at Peterson’s (and Hymn to Freedom’s) induction into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2008.
Hymn to Freedom as recorded by Oscar Peterson can be purchased through iTunes or audible.com, as well as on CD. I recommend the recording that is found on the Night Train CD.