Ottawa is full of statues honouring war heroes, politicians, statesmen and women suffragettes. 

However, to my knowledge, there is only one Canadian artist who has been honoured in this fashion in the nation’s capital: the composer and Jazz musician Oscar Peterson (1825-2007) who was born in Montreal, son of parents who had immigrated from the West Indies. 

He became a jazz pianist and composer and  was called the "Maharaja of the keyboard" by Duke Ellington. During his impressive career he released over 200 recordings, won eight Grammy Awards, and received numerous other awards and honours. Peterson is considered one of the world’s greatest jazz pianists, played thousands of concerts worldwide in a career lasting more than 60 years. His song “Hymn to Freedom” became the anthem during the American Civil Rights movement. 

It took a group of dedicated fans to make the statue happen. Spearheaded by Peter Herrndorf, then president of the National Arts Centre, a fundraising campaign managed to attract the necessary money to commission the sculpture. Supporters included politicians such as later PM Stephen Harper and former Ontario Premier Bob Rae among others. The sculpture was unveiled with great ceremony by Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada, on Canada Day in 2010 and has since become one of Ottawa’s tourist attractions.


I was curious to find out who sculpted this arresting piece. It turned out to have been created by a woman, Ruth Abernethy, a Toronto-based sculptor who had already done a sculpture of Glenn Gould in front of the CBC headquarters in Toronto. She decided to make the sculpture inviting, rather than aloof and on a pedestal - as is the custom with statues honoring outstanding personalities. Peterson is placed on a bench turned sideways from his piano, smiling at the passers-by and inviting them to sit beside him as my friend does in this photo, to be photographed while they are enjoying some of his great music. 

Kelly Peterson, his widow, reports that many tourists and fans send selfies of themselves to his Facebook page after spending a moment on the bench with him. One can see how often his shoulders and right arm have been embraced by those seeking a photograph next to this icon… 

Naturally I had to find out what the Glenn Gould piece in Toronto was like. I discovered that Abernethy has chosen the same approach for her Glenn Gould statue. The musician is sitting sideways with his legs crossed. He is dressed in somewhat old-fashioned, but for him characteristic clothes (he wore an overcoat and gloves in the warmest summer weather) wearing a cap which he holds onto. He could be anybody rather than a pianist revered all over the world. Again, there is plenty of room for admirers and fans to sit beside him and start an imaginary conversation.



I find both sculptures charming and very accessible. Rather than looking up in awe, the passer-by can establish a relationship with the portrayed. While Peterson is smiling and welcoming Glenn Gould seems turned inward, wearing his famous scarf and lost in his thoughts. Whatever we know about both these personalities has been captured in their portraits: Peterson outgoing and effusive, Gould withdrawn and shy of publicity.

* the author is planning a series of vignettes such as this one on works of public art in Ottawa