André, Oscar and Race Relations in the United States

Race relations in the United States, it seems to me, are about as bad as they’ve been since the 1950s. The world will little note nor long remember what an internet columnist has to say about improving them, but a guy’s got to try. Here, then, are notes on a master class by the late greats André Previn, who died Feb. 28, and Oscar Peterson (1945-2000).

This video is part six of the class. All six parts are well worth listening to. My own lesson begins at 2:00 in part six, after Oscar concludes a tune.

First, Oscar and André knew each other.

Get it?

Second, after André asks Oscar to join him in a duet, he lets Oscar go first in the conversation.

Third, André listens to him play a chorus of blues in F, and looks with interest at what Oscar’s doing. (2:48-3:04).

André then plays two beautiful choruses of blues (3:04-3:30), which he was able to do because he had taken Oscar’s world seriously for a long time, and learned about it.

Fifth, look at their hands (4:08-4:14; Oscar at 4:23; André at 4:30). André’s hands, compared to Oscar’s, are almost clawlike: fingers bent down from a loose wrist. This is because classical pianists are often required to play staccato, which seldom happens in jazz, and because the loose wrist helps the pianist wend through a 40-minute concerto without undue muscle strain.

Oscar, as great or a greater pianist than André, plays with flatter fingers. This may seem a small point, but it is not. Thelonious Monk — the most influential jazz pianist of the second half of the 20th century — played with hands and fingers almost splayed flat. One reason he did this was to sound like the old player pianos and the beat-up uprights to which he had listened growing up. Oscar did not go that far, but he suited his hands and fingers to play the legato style of jazz.

Different techniques, then, in search of the same thing.

At 4:26, André uses multiple fingers to repeat a single note, an example of classical technique transposed into the jazz idiom. And when André ends his chorus on the leading tone (E natural in the scale of F) at 4:38, it’s a direct ripoff of Monk — which shows again André’s debt to jazz.

Our piano masters then play a true duet for one chorus, until André tells Oscar to take it, at 4:54. Oscar takes it without missing a beat, because throughout the piece they have been listening to each other.

André takes it at 5:07 and gets funky, they trade a couple of choruses, and at 6:16 Oscar begins to wrap it up by walking a boogie-woogie in his left hand. Note that when he does this, his left hand is closer to the classical claw position, because early 1900s boogie used more detached, semi-staccato notes than modern jazz.

André joins in on the second chorus at 6:35 and from then on in it’s pure joy, building to a climax over three more choruses, with a coda, and then my favorite part: the exuberant hug at 7:34.

I love the hug. It’s so obvious that André and Oscar dig each other, and are glad and grateful to have met.

So. That’s my lecture on race relations.

Get to know people. Listen to them. Don’t feel that you have to change who you are to do this. And a little bit of home study won’t hurt.

Former senator and NBA star Bill Bradley said it more simply: “How long has it been since you had an honest conversation about race with someone of a different race? If the answer is never, then you’re part of the problem.”

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