Jeanne Arland Peterson, matriarch of Minnesota jazz, dies at 91

  • Article by: JON BREAM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 25, 2013 - 2:16 PM

In eight decades as a singer and pianist, she made her name by balancing her family with her career.

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Listeners in 40 states were serenaded by her swinging voice on WCCO Radio. Twins fans and players were roused by her organ playing at Met Stadium. And millions of music lovers have been moved by the tunes her five children played with Bob Dylan, Prince, Bonnie Raitt and other stars.

Jeanne Arland Peterson had one of the most extraordinary careers in Minnesota music. From her start as a teenage pianist in a department store to her swan song concert last December, Peterson, 91, was a living timeline who bridged the golden age of radio with the era of MTV and the advent of the iPod. She died Sunday of natural causes at the Castle Ridge nursing home in Eden Prairie.

Lowell Pickett, proprietor of Minnesota’s renowned Dakota Jazz Club, called her “a world-class pianist — the delicacy, the intricacies, the musical ideas and the technique.”

Famed pianist Marian McPartland once encouraged her to move to New York to make it big but Peterson opted to stay in Minnesota and raise her family.

“She was absolutely on a level with many of the nationally named artists,” said longtime Twin Cities jazz broadcaster Leigh Kamman, who followed Peterson’s career since she was 15. “She did not want to travel. Being with her family kept her out of the national scene on a grand scale and probably kept her from a recording contract.”

All five of her children became professional musicians, often backing her in concert. She performed regularly into her late 80s, playing as recently as two weeks ago.

At her final public performance last December at Hopkins Center for the Arts, Peterson appeared frail as she was escorted to the piano by her two daughters. But once at the keyboard, she seemed at home. Her timing was impeccable, her melodies ornate and her sense of swing intact. She even improvised a funky piano solo, jamming with her kids on the 1970s R&B chestnut “What You Won’t Do for Love.”

“My age doesn’t change,” she told the Star Tribune in 2006. “I started [playing piano] when I was 3 and I just kept going. I feel very young.”

From the Met to Moscow

Born in Minneapolis, Jeanne Arland got her start at 15, demonstrating piano sheet music at the downtown Minneapolis Dayton’s store, and quickly graduated to gigs in ballrooms and nightclubs, doing schoolwork between sets.

For more than two decades she was the featured vocalist on WCCO Radio — which in those days could be heard coast-to-coast — backed by her husband, Willie Peterson, who led the station’s orchestra. After he died of cancer in 1969, she took over his gig as Minnesota Twins organist at the old Met Stadium in Bloomington.

Although staying in Minnesota limited her career options, she became close friends with singing star Peggy Lee and performed with comedian Bob Hope, crooner Perry Como and such jazz stars as Roy Eldridge. One highlight was a 1958 concert at Met Stadium, where she was featured vocalist in an all-Gershwin program by the Minneapolis Symphony (later the Minnesota Orchestra), under the direction of pioneering jazz conductor Paul Whiteman.

She kept busy, playing organ for Old Log Theater’s children’s shows, performing at society parties and trade shows, in nightclubs and concert halls. In 1988, she got a chance to tour the Soviet Union with Women Who Cook, an all-star Twin Cities female band whose members were young enough to be her children.

“Jeanne learned ‘That’s What Friends Are For’ in Russian. She worked so hard on it and the audience was so taken by it,” said singer Jearlyn Steele, who was part of that tour. “Whenever any of us wanted to complain, she would say, ‘We’re here for a purpose.’ Who better to remind us than Mother Music?” — the group’s pet nickname for her.

Stars in the basement

The Peterson house in Richfield was always a hangout for children and grandchildren — whether they were jumping in the swimming pool or jamming in the basement.

“Her heart was as big as her talent,” said Paul Peterson, her youngest child. “She was everybody’s mom. They all called her ‘Mama Jeanne.’ She was always so welcoming. Everyone from David Sanborn to Steve Miller rehearsed in her basement on Morgan Avenue.”

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  • Jeanne Arland Peterson, seen here performing at the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, died Sunday at age 91.

  • jeannie arland peterson

    Born: Aug. 16, 1921, in Minneapolis.

    Married: To Willard O. (Willie) Peterson in 1943; he died in 1969.

    Children: Singer Linda; bassist Billy; singer Patty; keyboardist Ricky; Jeffrey (who died of leukemia at age 2); multi-instrumentalist Paul.

    First job: Demonstrating sheet music at Dayton’s, circa 1937.

    Latest album: The two-record set “88 Grand” (2009). One disc features vintage recordings from the 1930s through the 1950s, some from WCCO Radio. The other showcases 16 piano instrumentals, accompanied by sons Billy and Paul (on drums).

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