He took up the instrument at age five, and by his tenth birthday he had surpassed his teacher, the prolific recording artist Louis Hooper. When he entered high school, he was already a working musician. Acceptance into the Montreal Conservatory of Music brought him deeper immersion in the classics, but it was the radio console in the family living room that became his real teacher. That's where he heard Teddy Wilson, as elegant and polished a pianist as you could choose to model. The line between classical and jazz was blurred even further when one of his teachers, a man who had himself studied under a student of Franz Liszt's, played him some Art Tatum to illustrate a point he was trying to make. Peterson recognized that his ambition would be to play the instrument at the highest possible level, with both hands and a full heart.
His earliest recordings in the late 1940s, initially released only in Canada, were designed to be splashy and showy, and Peterson later disowned them. But they made an impression on musicians and his renown began to spread. He was in residency in a Montreal club in 1949 when Norman Granz finally got to hear the pianist musicians were telling him to sign. He had been looking for someone to replace Nat King Cole in Jazz at the Philharmonic, since Nat had left the touring attraction, and Peterson became, in an instant, the pianist who would fill that role for Granz for the rest of his life.
Granz introduced him from the stage at Carnegie Hall in the now-famous “surprise” performance at JATP in September of that year. It was actually engineered to appear spontaneous, but by not announcing the performance in advance, Granz avoided immigration issues and kept Peterson's nerves in check. Peterson played three numbers, and destroyed everyone in attendance. Within two years, he was topping down beat's Reader's Poll on his instrument.
The comparisons to Nat King Cole are expected, given the piano-bass-guitar line-up in these recordings. But you can't mistake the two musicians on most of the recordings. While Peterson had the ability to tinkle as lightly and artfully, achieving gentle simplicity on ballads and standards, on other numbers he would range with gusto and inventiveness across the entire keyboard. They built them with all those keys, anyway – why ignore most of them in making music?