Oscar Peterson will watch over a musical celebration of his 90th birthday on Saturday.

The National Arts Centre (NAC) will commemorate the late Canadian jazz pianist with a free outdoor concert – and right beside the band, keeping an eye on the show, will be the statue of Peterson and his piano at the south-west corner of the NAC building. The sculpture, which is normally accompanied by recordings of Peterson on piano, has become a popular attraction for jazz lovers and tourists in general.

Clayton Connell was excited to be chosen to play piano at the 90th birthday celebration for Canadian jazz icon Oscar Peterson. ©Brett Delmage, 2013
Clayton Connell was excited to be chosen to play piano at the 90th birthday celebration for Canadian jazz icon Oscar Peterson. ©Brett Delmage, 2013
The free half-hour concert, at the corner of Elgin and Albert Streets, will start at 1 p.m. on August 15, 90 years to the day after Peterson was born. (in case of bad weather, the concert will be moved to the nearby NAC Fourth Stage.)

The quartet of young Ottawa pianist Clayton Connell will perform music composed by Peterson and jazz standards which have become associated with him. Connell said he will be accompanied by drummer Michel Delage and bassist Ben Heard – and “because Oscar Peterson and [trumpeter] Clark Terry did many records together, we're going to add Kelly Craig to do some of the Clark Terry parts.”

The show will feature Peterson's signature piece, “Hymn to Freedom”, which became an anthem for the civil rights movement in the 1960s, as well as “Brotherhood of Man” from the Oscar Peterson Trio + One album with Terry. Peterson's quieter side will be represented by his tender ballad, “When Summer Comes”, and there are likely to be several numbers from Peterson's We Get Requests album.

Listening to the music will be Peterson's widow, Kelly, the NAC said. Also attending will be artist Ruth Abernethy, who created the sculpture, which was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II in June 2010.

Connell, a 2014 graduate of Carleton University's music school, was asked to do the show after performing a “Casual Friday” pre-show for an NAC Orchestra concert in May. He said he was initially surprised but thrilled at the opportunity – and with all the recent media attention, “it's turning out to be more than I expected, extremely exciting, I must say!”

Oscar Peterson was “an influence of mine since the very beginning in my jazz playing. He was probably the first pianist that I heard on record,” Connell said. “And so it's an honour, a true honour ... to be a part of something so great and to honour such a great man.”

He said he was practicing every day for the concert and would be holding more rehearsals with his quartet “to get as comfortable as we can be” with the material. He said that in a few songs, he would be following Peterson's solos – “very tough stuff to lift, but I'm going to try to do those in the best way that I can” – and in other songs would be reinterpreting the music in the lineage of jazz, “which is always moving, always growing”.

In a career spanning more than 60 years, Peterson released over 200 recordings, won eight Grammy Awards, and wrote many well-known jazz pieces, including the "Canadiana Suite". Arguably the best-known Canadian jazz musician ever, he was named to the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the International Jazz Hall of Fame, and received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and the UNESCO Music Prize. He was a Companion of the Order of Canada, and an Officer in the Order of Arts and Letters in France. He was the first recipient of the Governor General's Performing Arts Award (GGPAA), and his photo can be seen in the ground-floor, red-walled GGPAA gallery at the NAC.

Although he could easily fill a concert hall on his own, especially with his strong piano bass line and swinging style, Peterson was best known for his long-standing jazz trios with guitarists like Herb Ellis, Joe Pass, and Barney Kessel, and bassists Ray Brown, Sam Jones, and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen. He was a virtuosic piano player, referred to by Louis Armstrong as “the man with four hands.”

Peterson also influenced many Canadian musicians, notably pianist Oliver Jones. He ran the Advanced School of Contemporary Music in Toronto from 1960 to 1962. His own pupils included Skip Beckwith, Carol Britto, Wray Downes, Bill King, and Ottawa pianist Brian Browne. He also performed with many Canadian musicians including Dave Young, Michel Donato, Steve Wallace, Terry Clarke, and Lorne Lofsky.

Pianist Robi Botos, who took part in a 90th birthday tribute to Peterson at the Toronto Jazz Festival in June as well as a 2012 Peterson tribute in Ottawa, told OttawaJazzScene.ca that Peterson was a major influence on his music.

    – Alayne McGregor

Read OttawaJazzScene.ca's interviews with Clayton Connell and Robi Botos: