Pianist Oscar Peterson was first discovered by producer Norman Granz in the late 40’s, who enlisted him in his many record company and concert promotion projects. He accompanied most of the major jazz artists of the postwar years, including Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Count Basie.
Throughout his career, he was often compared to Art Tatum, and likened as his heir. This was due to Peterson’s virtuoso piano playing. Yet, his commitment to maintaining a rhythmic momentum in his playing also made him arguably the hardest swinging pianist of his generation.
Peterson was just as good a composer as he was a musician and could do ballads as well as faster tunes. “Cakewalk,” one of his most famous compositions, finds him letting loose in a vehicle for his piano stride skills. The tune first appeared in his 1981 live album Nigerian Marketplace, though it had been composed by the pianist before then.
Nigerian Marketplace was produced by Granz, recorded at the Montreux Jazz Festival that year and featured Peterson playing alongside bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen and drummer Terry Clark. Peterson performed “Cakewalk” live many times, favoring it in a small group setting (Note – the version in the video below features Peterson alongside bassist Dave Young, guitarist Joe Pass and drummer Martin Drew).
Its title seems to historically reference a dance that developed in the 19th century at “Prize Walk” get-togethers on slave plantations in the United States, at the end of which the winning participating couple would be awarded an enormous cake.