Oscar Peterson, one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time, believed as a boy that he was destined to play baseball. Thankfully for jazz lovers, young Oscar focused on piano, rather than pursuing his baseball dreams.
Directed by Barry Avrich, Oscar Peterson: Black + White follows the remarkable trajectory of Peterson’s life and art. This is a life-spanning documentary, brilliantly edited by Nicolas Kleiman, narrated in large part by Peterson himself via archival footage. Woven throughout is a musical tribute performed by Toronto-based jazz musicians — some proteges of OP and all lovers of the man and his legacy.
Speaking at an event honoring Oscar, Quincy Jones quips in an archival clip that he “didn’t even know they had Black people in Canada.” Well, I didn’t know that Oscar Peterson was Canadian, so this whole story was as new to me as it is rich and engaging. In addition to Jones, the impressive lineup of commentators includes: Herbie Hancock, Ramsey Lewis, Branford Marsalis, Jon Batiste, Billy Joel and others.
There’s a moving segment on “Hymn to Freedom,” perhaps Peterson’s most famous composition, inspired by Dr. King and written at the height of the civil rights movement. But it’s just the highlight of a clear-eyed discussion of race, as it played out in Peterson’s life. Growing up in Montreal, Quebec Oscar hadn’t experienced racial hatred the way he did when he came to the States. When asked how it made him feel, Oscar replied simply, “Bad.”
There’s the compelling story of Norman Granz, whose label Verve featured Peterson as a member of its house rhythm section. As producer, promoter and manager, Granz championed Peterson, making him a feature of his influential ‘Jazz at the Philharmonic’ series. Once, in Ft Worth, Texas, Granz insisted that white cab drivers drive his Black artists, including Peterson, even as a policeman pointed a loaded pistol at Granz’s stomach. “Norman stood his ground,” recalled Peterson.
Dr. Kitty Oliver, commenting on Peterson’s chops, opines, “There’s a way that Black musicians create that is at a different level.” The film draws a line from Art Tatum and Nat “King” Cole to Peterson and beyond that illustrates how Black jazz artists have created a new classical music, born in America of diverse influences.
Oscar Peterson was a big man with a beautiful smile and relentless positivity. Late in the film, his widow Kelly shares some of Oscar’s warmth and depth of humanity. All who contributed to this film would seem to agree with Giovanni Russonello, New York Times jazz critic. “When you put on an Oscar Peterson record, you know you’re going to feel lifted.”
Nostalgic Black history does a disservice to younger people. The community of my childhood wasn’t a haven. It was a battle ground.
We faced racial inequities being Black in White America and we also struggled with divisions within the Black community. That’s a part of Black history we need to be talking about, especially today.
As other marginalized groups in the U.S. and allies are finding common ground with Black people in the fight against racism and social injustices, the challenge is how to sustain the alliances. Our young people can benefit from hearing about the skills we developed confronting our intra-racial differences, not denial that those divisions ever existed.
I grew up in segregation as the Civil Rights Movement was sweeping through the South in the 1960s, and eventually became one of the first Blacks to attend a large university and work for a major newspaper. I know the significance of telling inspiring stories of individuals and organizations breaking barriers and fighting against the odds. The Black firsts continue today, from the offices of vice president of the United States and the secretary of defense to the first Black student body presidents at prestigious largely White universities to the publisher’s desk of that same newspaper where I once worked. Highlighting achievers – past and present – gives people a sense of pride.
Nostalgic stories of a cohesive Black community until desegregation, on the other hand, are harmful to the younger generation. It distracts them from the work they need to do in a global society.
Conjure up an idyllic past in the midst of waves of police shootings, the rise of hate crimes and White supremacists, and the frustration of challenging systemic racism so pervasive it sometimes seems impossible to dismantle, and who wouldn’t want an escape?
As a race and ethnic relations oral historian, I’ve encountered this nostalgic recall as a common refrain in many of the interviews I’ve conducted with people of my generation, across cultures, for historical archives. They say: We never locked our doors. Everyone looked out for everyone else. We all got along. I’ve also mentored millennials with a passion for Black history working on projects to preserve the stories of elders and memorialize sites of significance in declining Black neighborhoods who say wistfully that they wish they were “back in the day.”
Certainly, in one sense, they face complexities we never encountered. Their Black experience encompasses a wide range of Caribbean, African, Latinx, Indigenous, and European influences. They may identify as people of color, or BIPOC, or mixed, or other. And the frictions that surface caused by the “my pain is worse than your pain” oppression olympics as Elizabeth Martinez coined it, add to the difficulty forming and maintaining alliances.
Black history, for younger people, doesn’t need to be nostalgic to be inspiring – even the troubling parts.
In my northern Florida neighborhood, the us-and-them rivalries showed up whenever relatives visited from far off places like Chicago or New York. They made fun of our accents, our dress, our dances, and our manners like they did the southern immigrants who had migrated North. The grownups accepted the fancy appliances they brought but raised an eyebrow when they boasted about life being so much better where they came from because, in truth, Black people in the big cities were struggling as well.
Jim Crow laws maintained the economic inequities and racial barriers to access and mobility in the larger society. We had finer lines of social separation within our race – most notably lighter and darker skin. Also, teachers had status and not domestic day workers, homeowners saw themselves better than renters, and single mothers were looked down on by two-parent households. And then there was the question of African ancestry.
My maternal Gullah/Geechee roots meandered to the enslaved people turned sharecroppers on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina, back further through the West Indies to Cameroon, I would eventually discover. To my mother, however, it was a family secret we didn’t discuss. In those days this amalgam of African cultures who spoke a patois and had superstitious rituals and strange customs were disparaged in my community as being uneducated and too “country” by the city folks.
I had to learn early how to negotiate a minefield of differences and it served me well in the larger world.
Writing became my personal weapon of resistance. Creating my own biblical “pieces” to deliver at Christmas and Easter pageants at church. Crafting arguments into speeches for oratorical contests. Catching snippets of grownup conversations on porches and street corners where people hashed out their differences and using them in my published work.
On a larger scale, historically, Black people have always found ways to incorporate diversity and struggle into new coalitions for racial justice. The Abolition Movement, the fight for civil rights, the Poor People’s Campaign. Grassroots political organizing. The Black Lives Matter movement internationally. It’s important now to capitalize on the heightened awareness of disparities Americans are experiencing across racial, ethnic, and cultural lines and encourage working together towards solutions. That won’t happen by nostalgically glorifying the past. Our memories of experiences with divisions in our own culture and how we negotiated them can help foster inclusiveness and keep Black history relevant across generations.
The Encore Public Voices Fellowship is a collaboration among The OpEd Project (OEP), a think tank and leadership organization that accelerates the ideas and public impact of underrepresented voices, including women; Encore.org, a nonprofit dedicated to bridging generational divides; and Ann MacDougall (Senior Advisor, Encore.org). The fellowship is part of The OpEd Project’s national Public Voices Fellowship initiative to change who writes history. The fellowship is a prestigious initiative to accelerate the ideas and impact of new and necessary thought leaders, all working at the intersection of aging, longevity, intergenerational connection and social justice.
Many parts of the world are rapidly aging. In the U.S., we’ve added more than 30 years to life expectancy in the past century, but not across the board. Whites live longer than people of color. Women live longer than men. And the richest Americans live 10-15 years longer than the poorest. Today, for the first time ever, there are more people over the age of 60 than under the age of 18. The ripple effects of these shifts will affect every aspect of society. We need better and faster ideas from a more diverse set of people of all ages, including those who are most impacted by the uneven implications of these realities, and thus most likely to see new solutions and envision a more just future.
Fellows will receive a full year of support, skills and mentoring to ensure their ideas shape the greater public conversation. Members of the first two groups of fellows have been featured at SWSW, on Good Morning America, and in publications including the New York Times, USA Today, Fast Company, The Washington Post, The Atlantic and more. See this infographic for details about the first 41 fellows and the impact they’ve had.
Members of the fellowship’s Advisory Council include Ellen Goodman (Chair), Sylvia Brown, Mary C. Curtis, Ken Dychtwald, Raymond Jetson, Katie Orenstein, Trabian Shorters and Lester Strong. Here’s a brief introduction to the group. Stay tuned for more ways to get to know each of them in the coming months.
Alison McCrary, Social justice lawyer
Arianna Nassiri, Member, San Francisco Youth Commission
Christopher Tyson, President & CEO, Build Baton Rouge
Ernest Gonzales, Associate Professor, New York University
Frankie Huang, Writer
Dr. Imani Woody, Founder & CEO, Mary’s House for Older Adults, Inc.
Janine Vanderburg, Initiative Director, Changing the Narrative
Jonathan Collie, Co-founder The Age of No Retirement CIC, Creator of The Common Room purpose model
Kasley Killam, Founder of Social Health Labs
Dr. Kitty Oliver, Author and oral historian
Laura Nova, Artist and Associate Professor of Creative Arts and Technology, Bloomfield College
Mistinguette Smith, Principal Consultant at M Smith Consulting and Executive Director at Black/Land Project
Peter Slatin, Founder and President, The Slatin Group LLC, and Co-Founder, Slatin Media Group LLC
Rey Castuciano, Executive Director & Founder, Table Wisdom
Sandra Barnhill, Founder and CEO, Foreverfamily, Inc.
Sasha Johfre, Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology, Stanford University
Serena Bian, Community Strategist, Systems Designer and Neighbor
Sian-Pierre Regis, Director/Producer, Duty Free
Susanne Stadler, Principal, Stadler & Architecture and Executive Director & Co-Founder, At Home With Growing Older
Tim Carpenter, CEO/Founder, EngAGE
Uma Menon, Student and author, Princeton University
Ron Howard’s Eight Days A Week Film Kitty Oliver. Perhaps the least familiar and most bracing material in “Eight Days a Week,” however, doesn’t concern The Beatles’ artistry at all, but their politics — as in an interlude concerning their contractual refusal to play before racially segregated audiences in Jacksonville, Florida. It’s a stand movingly articulated by African-American historian Kitty Oliver as initiating her first direct social contact with the white population. Meanwhile, Whoopi Goldberg (the most voluble of the film’s game but somewhat randomly selected celebrity interviewees, including Sigourney Weaver and Eddie Izzard) also argues for Beatlemania as something of a cultural bridge in the Civil Rights-riven America of the mid-1960s: “They were colorless, and they were f—ing amazing,” she enthuses. Howard sometimes strains to shoehorn somber social context into otherwise swinging proceedings — a passing observation of JFK’s assassination feels particularly cursory — but these women’s recollections constitute a rare flash of honestly unexpected perspective in an otherwise by-the-book fan valentine.
Ron Howard‘s love affair with The Beatles began at age 10 when he first saw them on “The Ed Sullivan Show” (9 February 1964) (ep: The Ed Sullivan Show: Episode #17.19(1964)). His first fan request was for a Beatle wig.
Eight Days a Week is a respectful retelling of the Beatles’ early tale, but in glorious Technicolor. Howard, whose affection for mid-20th-century history has been well documented with box-office hits like Apollo 13, Frost/Nixon and A Beautiful Mind, underwent an exhaustive search to recover long-lost footage, which was then lovingly restored to cinema quality. All assembled, the band’s story takes on the drama and scale of a Biblical epic that’s scarcely believable even half a century later.
“By the end, it became quite complicated, but at the beginning things were really simple,” says Paul McCartney in voiceover. Simple isn’t always bad. Before they became technical recording masters, the Beatles were, as McCartney often says with charming understatement, “a great little rock & roll band.” Eight Days a Week lets you experience them like never before, and feel the frenzy of those thrilling years that came and went much too fast.
Kitty’s public television and video productions are used widely by schools and libraries She is producer and host of the 10-part series “Crossing Cultures/Changing Lives”, airing on WBEC-TV. In addition, she produces videos, podcasts, and blogs on race and ethnic relations and changes across generations. She is a lecturer and workshop leader on creative nonfiction writing techniques and memoir writing, and a professional jazz singer. She conducts community oral history field work and is a member of the Oral History Association.