When Oliver Jones was a mere 65 years old, he and his wife both felt it was time for him to
retire after years of playing piano on concert stages throughout the world. So he did. Briefly.
Now, 16 years later, the legendary jazz pianist is about to retire again, insisting his current tour of Canada will be his last.
“I had kind of a wake-up call last year with a heart attack, and had a triple bypass,” he explains. “And now it’s time.”
No doubt, the rigorous schedule he maintained for years was a contributing factor.
“I used to travel about 300,000 miles a year for about 15 years in a row. And I did enjoy it. It was a wonderful way to see the world and meet other musicians – and a wonderful education. I’ve been to all the different continents, so I consider myself very, very fortunate.”
But even at the age of 81, Jones doesn’t intend to sit back and take it easy.
“After doing as much as I’ve done and being constantly on the move, I think it would be wasted if I didn’t share my experience in some other way,” he says.
“I’ve told people I’m retiring from the stage, but you probably will hear Oliver Jones play for a telethon or something, in order to help youngsters, or in the schools, like motivation and so forth that I’ve done over the last 15 or 20 years.”
Jones still lives in Montréal, where he grew up living about 15 blocks from his lifelong friend and musical inspiration, the great Oscar Peterson.
“Our parents were all from the West Indies. We went to the same school, both elementary and high school, and I later followed him at the same church,” Jones recalls.
“There were several pianists living in the area, and all of us played the same style. The only thing is that Oscar was able to play it twice as fast as everyone else, and he went on to be such a great pianist.”
It was Peterson’s older sister, Daisy Peterson Sweeney, who gave both young men their first major grounding in classical piano music. Although she was still in her early 20s when she started teaching him, Jones admired her analytical mind and discipline.
“She was only 13 or 14 years older than me, but she was very mature at a very young age. I learned more than music with her; she was a tremendous lady and I truly always admired her.”
Jones says he feels honoured when people associate his name with that of Peterson, who died in 2007.
“I don’t believe I would have been a professional pianist if it wasn’t for Oscar. Back then, there wasn’t a great deal of opportunity for young black players.”
Peterson’s example gave him confidence that there was an opportunity to do well in music, “and it didn’t matter if you came from a low-income family,” he says.
Like Peterson, Jones came from a railroad family. After 19 years as a miner in Nova Scotia, his father moved to Montréal to become a mechanic working on steam engines for the Canadian Pacific Railway. He was also an amateur musician who studied composition and music theory.
“He loved Bach. I remember being 13 or 14 and having to listen to Bach fugues and so forth, which he swore by,” Jones says. “Later on, I realized that it helped me an awful lot, because one of the things that Bach was playing was what we play today in what we call jazz. I think Bach would have been one of the greatest jazz composers if he had lived in our era.”
Jones himself has composed more than 200 jazz pieces, with three or four originals on each of his last 15 or 20 recordings. But he has also maintained his interest in classical music.
“Recently, I finally played one of my favourite pieces, George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” with an orchestra. And I had the wonderful experience of playing it with a wonderful fellow Canadian pianist by the name of Daniel Clark Bouchard.”
Jones first met Clark Bouchard when he was just seven years old.
“He’s 16 years old now, but he’d already played Carnegie Hall when he was 12. He’s a tremendous, tremendous talent, and I believe he will be the next great young pianist in Canada. I’ve very, very proud of him.”
That’s high praise, coming from someone who proudly wears the Order of Canada pin he received in 1993 for his own musical contributions. It is also typical of a man who wants to dedicate the next chapter of his life to encouraging and promoting young Canadian musicians who don’t get the recognition he thinks they deserve.
As part of his final tour, Jones will perform at the Yukon Arts Centre on Sunday, June 26 at 7:30 p.m. He will be joined by his trio partners for the past 11 years, drummer Jim Doxas and bassist Éric Lagacé.
For more information, go to www.YukonArtsCentre.com.