Today, we veer away from the predictable to feature a work of art that contributed just as much to American 20th century social movements as the most political soul songs in the 1960s. The work is not only distinctly not of the soul genre, but also by someone who isn’t even from the United States.
Born August 15, 1925, Oscar Peterson was a Canadian jazz pianist and composer whose prolific career spanning sixty years would come to elevate his status to the level of legend and icon. Over his career, “O.P.” would release over 200 recordings, win 8 Grammy awards, become a member of the Companion of the Order of Canada (the highest degree of merit for civilians), and perform thousands of concerts around the world.
In the beginning, he was the son of immigrants from the West Indies and had a curiosity for trumpet and piano. When a bout with tuberculosis denied him the trumpet, he turned his attention to the piano and at age 14, won the national competition organized by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Afterward, he dropped out of school to pursue music as a professional, and from there, soared to work with, and tutor, many legendary figures in jazz before receiving the Grammy for Lifetime Achievement and being inducted into the International Jazz Hall of Fame in 1997.
Of his many works, one that many could recognize is that which we feature today. Written in 1962 just a year before Martin Luther King gave his iconic speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial, and just two years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Oscar Peterson composed a Hymn to Freedom for piano, bass, and drums, the instruments that occupied his then famous trio.
Urged by his producer and friend Norman Granz to produce a song with “a definitive early-blues feel,” Peterson turned to Negro spirituals from his childhood in Baptist churches for inspiration. According to his wife in an interview on the 50th anniversary of his Night Train album, he did not write the piece until the day of the recording.
All the more praise, then, to the man who produced such poignant work that would be hailed as an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement:
As counter-intuitive as it may be, what drives this song is its simplicity. The song begins by introducing the chord progression the rest of the song is based on. Even this introduction feels poignant as it takes its time, piano alone, and wades in the silence before moving forward in a melancholy spirit toward its hopeful resolution. The bass and drums join for its subsequent iterations, allowing Peterson to build upon this theme and explore, though never falling too far astray from the original chord progression, never too far from its roots. The steadiness of the piece too, allows one to feel a spirit persist, quietly yes, but with courage and insistence. Peterson layers shimmers atop the chords in the final few iterations, as if to hint at the coming of a climactic breakthrough before withdrawing again into the original theme, slowing things down as if to have returned to the theme a bit wiser and more judicious, as if to affirm the coexistence of melancholy and hope in the final hour.
Make no mistake about his return to a very Bach-like ending, with a suspended fourth chord resolving with a Baroque turn; he grew up practicing Bach fugues and in later years would advise students to practice Bach before all else.
The song now stands immortal, with lyrics added and countless covers as well as multiple versions produced by Peterson in later years. What it could accomplish without lyrics (initially) remains immense. It could say so much with so little, demonstrating power in silence, strength in persistence. It required no lyrics to be felt, and to be understood; not even knowing the title, one could grasp its gravitas and subtlety, and be moved to reflection and action. If this is not the project of music — to reach and move the souls of its witnesses — then music has no power in shaping our lives.
Thankfully, it does, and Oscar Peterson shows us how.