If the Civil Rights movement had a soundtrack, “Hymn to Freedom” by Montreal musician Oscar Peterson would be on it. Inspired by Black church songs from his childhood, Peterson’s music was “swiftly embraced by people over the world” as the anthem of the movement, according to the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame.
It’s just one of countless cultural contributions made by the jazz visionary, whose life story is feted in the latest Heritage Minute. Watch the video below to see the Heritage Minute about Peterson ― the first time Historica Canada has spotlighted a musician in the series.
The video dives deep into Peterson’s roots in the Montreal working-class Black neighbourhood of Little Burgundy. It shows how his father, who was a train porter ― a job that the voiceover notes was one of the few available to Black Canadian men at the time ― sparked his love for music, by bringing home a piano.
“Music would be our ticket out of poverty. I knew we couldn’t afford that piano, so I practiced twice as hard,” Peterson, portrayed by Nigerian-Torontonian pianist Thompson Egbo-Egbo, says in the Heritage Minute. The video was scored by Peterson’s own protégé Robi Botos due to copyright and creative issues.
Viewers see Peterson take to the instrument and show prodigious talent at a young age. Over the course of the 60-second short film, they see him overcome adversities such as segregation in white-dominated clubs, as he goes on to showcase his musical genius to the world.
Heritage Minutes have carved out a special place in Canadian culture. For the jazz musician’s daughter, Céline Peterson, watching her dad’s story celebrated in this way was a source of joy.
“A Heritage Minute on dad. I’m not crying. Not one bit,” she tweeted earlier this month. “This is SO exciting.”
Canada had segregation too
Historica Canada also released a video featuring Céline on Wednesday, where she explained the significance of Little Burgundy to Black working-class Montrealers and Canadian jazz culture at large, which was exempt from segregation policies in other parts of the city.
“In Montreal, there was no formal signage excluding people based on race like the United States, but the day-to-day division was clear,” she said. “In Canada, business owners had the legal right to serve whoever they wanted and license to discriminate.”
Her father faced racist heckling in “white-only” jazz clubs and authorities often used red tape to prevent Black Canadians from owning these establishments. In spite of this, Little Burgundy’s hubs — like the jazz club Rockhead’s Paradise and a Black community centre that Peterson’s sister Daisy took a leadership role in running — flourished as Black spaces where locals could come together.
Peterson received high praise from Heritage Minute fans, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and R&B artist Jully Black.
Peterson’s devotion to music unparallelled
Although “Hymn to Freedom” is his most well-known song, Peterson’s other works also paid tribute to places he loved. Like his father did in his profession, Peterson’s album “Canadiana Suite” took people on a “railway journey” across Canada.
The track “Place St. Henri” was inspired by the bustling community Peterson’s West Indian immigrant parents settled in.
He was a mentor for many young Canadian music lovers and taught at York University for several years.
Now commemorated with statues and landmarks across Canada, Peterson left a legacy that continues to make an impact.
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