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In 1991, celebrated jazz pianist and composer Oscar Peterson became Chancellor of York University - another honor bestowed upon the award-winning artist - and in 1992 he was profiled in a well-received NFB documentary, In the Key of Oscar.

In the intervening years, Peterson continued to tour and record albums, and in 2002 his autobiography was published as Jazz Odyssey (Continuum International Publishing Group). An official tribute website also includes career and music-related links, writings, and discographical material, but it's still rather curious that Peterson's only original feature film score, The Silent Partner (1978), has yet to receive a CD release.

The rapid standardization of CDs as the dominant audio format has meant many recordings on vinyl have been rendered as obscure, if not completely forgotten; but that's probably not why a CD of The Silent Partner has remained so elusive.

Long a cult film, Silent was made by an intriguing collection of names, some of whom became icons: executive producer Garth Drabinsky later co-founded Cineplex, which radically influenced movie-going during the 1980s by erecting multiple, dinky-sized screening rooms in shopping malls, and patented the multiplex theatrical exhibition model for better and worse; Joel Michaels subsequently produced the cult films The Changeling and The Philadelphia Experiment , and re-teamed with Drabinsky for the engaging 2003 Biblical epic, The Gospel of John; and screenwriter/co=producer Curtis Hanson picked up an Oscar for co-writing the outstanding L.A. Confidential; and billed as executive producers were future Carolco founders Mario Kassar, and Andrew Vajna.

The film enjoyed a theatrical release in 1978 (plus an effectively creepy ad campaign, using Christopher Plummer's gleaming, malevolent eyes), and was a high profile Canadian production at a time when a substantive portion of domestic feature length films were made as tax shelter vehicles.

During the late-seventies/early eighties, a number of bad films were birthed during this controversial period, and among the more infamous are Circle of Two , in which poor Jules Dassin was dragged out of retirement to the Toronto Islands to film a pretentious love story between womanizing painter Richard Burton and Columbo-obsessed Tatum O'Neal; The Kidnapping of the President, with William Shatner as a key character in Charles Templeton's best-selling novel that was actually set in Toronto, and not Any City, U.S.A.; and Fast Company, in which David Cronenberg got to film fast-moving cars, but had to meet an encroaching winter deadline so investors could reap the savings. (Both the Alliance-Atlantis and Blue Underground DVDs share a commentary track by Cronenberg, who details the restrictive schedules and weirdities of shooting a tax shelter quickie.)

Silent Partner may not have been made as a straight shelter vehicle, but aside from theatrical exhibition, an early VHS release in North America, and TV airings on Toronto 's City TV and Pay TV stations, the film never made the leap to Laserdisc, or DVD.

For the film's soundtrack, its availability has also been less diverse: a long out-of-print cassette tape, and LP from Pablo. The reasons could be legal rights, straightforward corporate apathy, or the classic dilemma of a lesser-known title that's been overshadowed and forgotten by more high-profile titles in the Pablo back catalogue.

Less evident, though maybe equally to blame, is the fact that film scoring was simply not a major branch in Peterson's career. Peterson's live performances have appeared on film and early CBC programs, and his music was featured in some notable NFB shorts by Norman McLaren, but film scoring was never a career the composer took much further.

In the straightforward Q&A below, Peterson discusses his involvement with The Silent Partner , and one senses in him some regret in not being able to fully exploit the opportunity as a hands-on endeavor. Perhaps a curious footnote in his extraordinarily rich music career, The Silent Partner remains an intriguing creative anomaly.

Mark R. Hasan: How did you become involved in the film? Was it the producer or director Daryl Duke that contacted you?

Oscar Peterson: It was the producer, Joel Michaels, who asked me to write the music. [At the time] I was heading for Japan , and I had a time limit and an upcoming tour, and unfortunately their film was running a little late. So instead of scoring the whole film, Joel asked me if I could lay out the melodic end, and he brought out a gentleman [named Ken Wannberg] to score it.

MRH : It worked out fairly well -

OS : No, it's not really the way I wanted to do it, to be very frank with you. I usually work with Rick Wilkins on that kind of thing, and work a little tighter to make it sound the way [I] want. But there was no way around [the schedule], so I had to go for it as it was.

MRH : Have you composed for any feature films since then?

OS : No, because I haven't had the time, plus doing films - unless I know the producer or director - I'm not crazy about it. About a year ago I had a talk with [Quincy Jones] and the problems with that. You get into the fact that you might write an awful lot of music that you're very proud of. The next thing you know, by the time you're finished, they've chopped your music up so badly you might not recognized it. It has to be a friendly situation where they're tolerant on both sides. I've had a couple of offers recently, and I'm looking at one right now for a Canadian film, but again it's the same problem: you have to fight to get heard.

In the Key of Oscar (VHS)


A Jazz Odyssey (book cover)


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