Oscar Peterson: Music in the Key of Oscar (2004) is a terrific documentary about the legendary jazz pianist. Shot in 1992 during a reunion tour with members of the original Oscar Peterson Trio, Herb Ellis and Ray Brown, the best thing is the generous amount of time we get to spend watching and listening to these greats play. Though all are long in the tooth at this time, they are still playing at a very high level, as cohesive a group as they were in the 1950s.
Interspersed between the song sets are brief snippets of commentary from producer Norman Granz, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones, and, of course, Oscar himself. The film looks at his “boy genius” rise to prominence in Montreal, Canada, where he was discovered by Granz in what sounds like an apocryphal story but is apparently true. Granz was in a taxi heading to the airport to fly back to the States when he heard Peterson, then 24 years old, playing on the radio. When he asked the driver who the recording was by, the driver told him it was a live broadcast from a local club. Granz had him turn the taxi around and take him immediately to the club. Shortly thereafter, Peterson was introduced as a surprise performer at a Jazz at the Philharmonic concert at Carnegie Hall.
The film briefly covers the highlights of Peterson’s career, his influences, his experiences with racism while out on tour, and the recognition he finally receives at the time the film was made. It even looks at criticism of Peterson, particularly the charge that he was not an innovator or trendsetter on the piano. The point is tacitly acknowledged, but Peterson never saw this as his role, and the sheer artistry on display makes the point moot. Oscar Peterson is simply one of the greatest to ever tickle the jazz ivories.