Montreal pianist and jazz musician Oscar Peterson is being honored with a commemorative coin, released today.
Peterson, who died in 2007, was one of Canada’s most decorated musicians and is remembered as one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time.
The Royal Canadian Mint is issuing the $1 commemorative circulation coin to honor Peterson’s “extraordinary talent and enduring musical legacy,” it said in a statement.
“The whole city will finally realize that yes, we had the greatest pianist in the world, living here, in this country. And I’m so very, very proud that he was my friend,” said Oliver Jones, a collaborator and close friend.
Raised in Montreal’s Saint-Henri neighborhood, Peterson got his start by playing for the predominantly immigrant and Black communities of the city’s south side. Though Peterson rose to international acclaim in the span of a few years, he always maintained a connection to local talent and Canadian artistry.
The coin features Peterson playing the piano and musical notes corresponding to his 1962 composition hymn to freedom, which became an anthem for the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
There is also silver $20 coin that is available through the mint.
Accomplishment beyond belief
Jones says that having an image of Peterson put on a coin goes beyond what the two imagined for themselves.
“Our fathers would never believe what we’ve accomplished. And what a wonderful feeling of seeing him being honored like this.” said jones.
Peterson passed away in 2007 after a career of more than 60 years. He is remembered as a technical genius of jazz, reserving his place among the greats.
“As a musician, I don’t think we’ll ever have another person that has the impact of playing, that represents a whole country. When we speak of Oscar Peterson we’re speaking of the greatest jazz pianist in the world,” said jones.
Recognizing Peterson’s legacy
The Royal Canadian Mint says that this commemoration means celebrating a more complete story of Canada.
“Our first intent was really to celebrate the tremendous musical and cultural legacy of Oscar Peterson. But it’s a welcome addition that we are celebrating a tremendous story of achievement from Canada’s Black community.” said Alex Reeves, spokesperson for the mint.
In 2020, a petition to rename Lionel-Groulx after Peterson had more than 25,000 signatures. In 2021, the city announced that it would be creating a public square named after the musician as part of its renovation of McGill College avenue.
The coin takes Peterson’s commemoration a step further by declaring his importance on the national stage, making him both the first Black Canadian, as well as the first performing artist, on a circulation coin.
“Oscar Peterson is one of Canada’s own,” said Reeves, “His legacy carries on, and transcends generations.”
The coin will begin circulating next Monday, Aug. 15, which would have been Peterson’s 97th birthday.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.