Governor General of Canada

Governor General of Canada

January 12, 2008 10:00 ET

Oscar Peterson Memorial Concert: Toronto, Roy Thomson Hall, Saturday, January 12, 2008

SPEECH UNDER EMBARGO UNTIL 4 PM, SATURDAY, JANUARY 12, 2008

TORONTO, ONTARIO--(Marketwire - Jan. 12, 2008) - We are gathered here today to celebrate the life of a man who has touched the hearts and minds of audiences around the world. Touted as the "Maharajah of the keyboard," Oscar Peterson has left an indelible mark on the cultural heritage of the entire world.

Whether it was while accompanying the jazz legends, performing for royalty or playing for jazz lovers, he had an incredible ability to wow musicians and audiences alike with his dazzling artistic ingenuity.

From the playful handkerchief antics at the Philharmonic to his seemingly effortless playing, Oscar Peterson left listeners ecstatic, often gasping for more. This was particularly true during the Montreal International Jazz Festival, where audiences were always overjoyed to see the musical prodigy return to his native city.

A musical titan, he stands as a national treasure whose work will continue to inspire music lovers for many generations to come.

But what of the person, the passionate soul and the restless mind, who sat behind the "ivory box"?

I believe that Oscar Peterson's unparalleled creativity stemmed from his unequivocal yearning for excellence.

During a weeklong engagement at a jazz club in New York City, the virtuoso suffered a stroke that paralysed his left hand.

Unfazed by this unfortunate setback, he reemerged courageously two years later determined more than ever to charm audiences once again with his playing.

And he succeeded!

He received a standing ovation at Carnegie Hall.

He recorded at least two more albums.

And he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammies.

This "will to perfection," as he called it, stands as a powerful testament to the strength of his character.

And - if I may be so bold - I know where he got it from!

Before I became Governor General of Canada, my husband, Jean Daniel-Lafond and I lived for fifteen years in the very neighbourhood in which Oscar Peterson was born and grew up. In fact, it was his close friend, Oliver Jones, who introduced me to the community of Little Burgundy, La Petite Bourgogne, in Montreal.

I was so touched by what I encountered: the stories of the Black porters who worked on the railway, the families who could trace their ancestry back to the Black loyalists, and the strong community spirit that made raising a child everyone's business.

Little Burgundy had a powerful story to tell, and I felt a deep connection to its history.

So I decided to move into a house located footsteps away from where the Peterson family resided.

And following in the footsteps of Oscar Peterson, I went to some of the same organisations he had attended as a child and teenager, such as the foot-stomping and hand-clapping services at Union United Church, the oldest Black congregation in Quebec.

I still have fond memories of a community celebration at the Negro Community Centre where all the generations, young and old, stood around the dusty piano, singing and dancing, while Oliver Jones played.

Like Oscar Peterson, my parents were immigrants from the Caribbean who despite poverty, episodes of racism and other challenges, were determined to see their children grow up to become "simply the best."

So, Oscar Peterson learned the value of hard work, humility and perseverance from his parents, from his sister Daisy Sweeney, who instilled him with a foundation in classical music, and from the oldest African Canadian community in Quebec.

And I still recognize the same tenacity in his niece, my very good friend, Sylvia Sweeney, an incredible journalist, athlete and filmmaker, who paid tribute to her uncle in a beautiful documentary.

Let us not forget that Oscar Peterson's determination was tested on many occasions.

The only Black member of the Johnny Holmes Orchestra, he often felt the sting of bigotry and segregation.

Yet he never let racism dampen his resolve, preferring to use every opportunity he could find to promote the rights and freedoms of the downtrodden.

He pursued his commitment to human rights by personally supporting charitable efforts to help disenfranchised youth in Canada and overseas.

It was to recognize his incomparable musical accomplishments and his passionate commitment to universal freedom and justice that Oscar Peterson was appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada, the highest honour in our country.

Created forty years ago, the Order stands as a means to salute those luminaries who, over a lifetime, have stood out through their contributions to the edification of our country.

With its motto, "they desire a better country," the snowflake-shaped medal is the very best symbol of a national ideal that Canadians can strive for, an honour he wore proudly wherever he went.

And Oscar Peterson represents a glowing model of selfless dedication to the common good that will hopefully influence many others.

For we are living in a world in which freedom and solidarity are increasingly being eroded by the narrow notions of "every man for himself" and "everyone for his clan."

This is evident in the ethnic and religious animosities that are destabilizing entire regions of the world.

It is apparent in the social inequalities that are sustaining poverty worldwide.

It is manifest in the attitude of indifference that is creating so many solitudes among us.

This is why I am convinced that the world should follow Oscar Peterson by saying "yes" to humanity and a resounding "no" to social exclusion and apathy. For we must learn to see beyond our differences and embrace the values and aims we have in common.

And I am excited to see that the new generation of artists is following his lead.

During the urban arts forums I have held across Canada as well as in Brazil and South Africa, I have been moved to see how many young artists are striving for social change.

Using hip-hop, poetry, dance, film, and painting, they are all saying the same thing: "solidarity is a responsibility," and "we have solutions to bring to the challenges of today."

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Oscar Peterson was so fond of young people. He valued what he called the "innocent intent and fervor" of youth and dedicated his time to teaching and mentoring many of them.

I praise him for this because mentorship is crucial to building bridges between the generations in a spirit of reciprocity.

I salute his devotion because empowering youth is everyone's business!

This is why we have so much to learn from the passion Oscar Peterson brought to his music and his deep commitment to liberty and social justice.

There is no other way for me to conclude than by citing the prophetic words written by Harriette Hamilton, which accompany Oscar Peterson's "Hymn to Freedom," a moving piece that epitomizes the spirit and vision of one of the greatest musicians Canada has ever produced:

"When every heart joins every heart and together yearns for liberty, that's when we'll be free.

When every hand joins every hand and together molds our destiny, that's when we'll be free."

On behalf of all Canadians:

Merci Oscar Peterson.

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