When death came to Oscar just three weeks ago, the country once again came alive with his music. Every radio and television programme reminded us of his greatness: the driving versatility of the young man, the confidence of the middle years, the elegiac wistfulness of the old man in winter.
It is right that we celebrate Oscar's music -- time and his magnificent talent have now put him at the top of his profession. He transcends categories, he shatters easy classification.
But let us also remember the man. The little boy in St. Henri whose father and mother insisted he take lessons and could only have wondered at the talent as it emerged so quickly. The disciplined kindness of his sister, Daisy. The sadness at the early loss of his brother, Fred, who Oscar always said "was a better player than me." The kid who wasn't afraid to fight back when faced with racism. The young man who quickly rose to the top of the Montreal jazz scene, loved, married -- more than once, had children, was discovered by Norman Granz and then took off as an international star, electrifying audiences from New York to Tokyo to Montreux, Paris and Berlin, the composer and teacher, the great Canadian, patriot, friend, and at the end, the gentle and wise companion, husband and father.
Quel homme! Un homme de chaleur, de generosite, de gentillesse. Un genie sur le piano, un magicien du jazz, un professeur qui etait toujours pret a partager son talent avec ses etudiants, qui a eu la confiance d'encourager les autres, qui avant tout aimait sa famille, son voisinage, son pays, son Canada. Un homme fier qui a lutte toute sa vie contre le racisme, et en faveur de les valeurs humanitaires.
Like all of us he was at once simple and complicated. He loved to laugh, to kibbitz, to tease, he played jokes of all kinds. He was a proud man who felt strongly about what he had achieved. He was demanding -- he expected a great deal of himself and a great deal of others. The banter of the jazz fraternity could never conceal Oscar's rock hard determination to make every performance the very best he -- and those playing with him -- could do. And he applied the same standard to those who broadcast his music and who wrote about it.
I have a feeling that if he could say something to me after today, he would thank me, and then say "but you forgot to mention...."
He was fiercely loyal to his friends, and my wife and I were lucky to be numbered among them.
Oscar knew prejudice and despised it. He refused to play to segregated audiences, he fought for human rights, he loved Canada at its best and spoke out when he saw us falling below the standards he believed in.
The Oscar I knew was a man of candour, bluntness, and courage. I first saw him play when I was a teenager (and that's a few years ago!), knew him as a great Canadian and public servant, and marveled at his recovery from the stroke that hit him over a decade ago. The story of his recovery was much about Celine and Kelly, about their love and encouragement. It was also about Oscar's will and courage.
And so the greatest stride player who ever lived discovered the painful beauty of "When Summer Comes," and the world also realized that a one-handed Oscar was better than just about anyone else with two hands. Oscar savoured that triumph.
OP -- we shall miss you terribly. But above all, we love you, we salute you, we celebrate you, and for now we must be reconciled to our treasured memories and the glory of your gifts that is in the music we shall hear forever in our ears, but above all, in our hearts.
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