Oscar Peterson first Black Canadian on commemorative circulation coin

By Jesse Robitaille

Late jazz pianist Oscar Peterson has become the first Black Canadian and the first musician honoured on one of the country’s circulation coins.

The Royal Canadian Mint unveiled the $1 commemorative circulation coin, with both coloured and uncoloured varieties, on Aug. 11 at Toronto’s Roy Thompson Hall, which Peterson knew well throughout his more than 60-year career. Called “the man with four hands” by fellow jazz legend Louis Armstrong, Peterson delivered memorable performances and compositions such as Hymn to Freedom, Blues Etude and The Canadiana Suite to audiences around the world before his 2007 death at age 82. The coin began circulating on Aug. 15 to coincide with Peterson’s birthday.

“The Mint is passionate about celebrating stories of exceptional Canadians on its coins, and I am delighted that Oscar Peterson, the first Canadian musician to appear on a circulation coin, is being celebrated as one of the world’s most respected and influential jazz artists of all time,” said Mint Master Marie Lemay, the Crown corporation’s president and CEO. “Mr. Peterson’s music and legendary performances have brought joy to millions of music lovers in Canada and around the world and we are proud to honour him, through this coin, for his exceptional contributions to Canadian music and culture.”

Artist Valentine De Landro, of Ajax, Ont., designed the coin’s reverse with Peterson sitting at the piano, his hands in full motion, with a flowing musical scale showing two closing bars of his famous Hymn to Freedom. Peterson’s name is also featured below the central design.

“Throughout Oscar’s career, he received many awards and honours, each of which meant a great deal to him,” said his widow Kelly Peterson. “During the nearly 15 years since his passing, there have been more – all of them humbling, all of them a source of pride. The addition of this commemorative circulation coin bearing his likeness is something neither he nor I could ever have imagined.

“Knowing that Canadians now, and for generations to come, will hold this coin and be reminded of Oscar Peterson or be inspired to learn about him for the first time evokes emotions challenging to describe. I am deeply, profoundly honoured. Oscar was a great pianist and composer. He was a staunch advocate for human rights. Above all, he was always a proud Canadian. As his music is timeless, so too now will he be a part of the Canadian consciousness forever.”


Growing up in Little Burgundy, the hub of Montreal’s black community, Peterson learned about the value of a music education from his father and his older sister Daisy at an early age.

Raised on the classics, he mastered the piano and honed his craft through popular music to become one of the world’s most acclaimed jazz musicians. He made more than 400 recordings, and his famous Oscar Peterson Trio performed around the globe.

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