Jeanne Arland Peterson at her home piano in 2011 on her 90th birthday/ Star Tribune photo by Tom Wallace
Her two daughters escorted the frail woman to the piano at Hopkins Center for the Arts. After she sat down and put her fingers on the keys, Jeanne Arland Peterson couldn’t have seemed more at home. Her timing was impeccable, her melodies ornate and her sense of rhythm swinging.
For her swan-song performance on a cold night last December, the matriarch of Minnesota jazz was scheduled to perform two piano pieces. She ended up playing several numbers — some solo, others with her music-making children. She even jammed with her kids on a late 1970s R&B chestnut with some funky improvised piano.
Peterson — who spent 22 years in the WCCO Radio house band and three years as the Twins organist, performed with the likes of George Benson, Bob Hope and Perry Como and raised five children who are professional musicians — died Sunday evening at Castle Ridge nursing home in Eden Prairie. She was 91.
“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. In that basement at her house on Morgan Avenue, everyone from David Sanborn to Steve Miller rehearsed in that basement.”
A pianist and singer, Jeanne Arland Peterson was a force on the Minnesota scene since the 1940s. “Jeanne is one of the best pianists in the Twin Cities. She’s very underrated,” Dakota Jazz Club proprietor Lowell Pickett said in the 1990s. “I’ve heard her burn things up.” She was even playing piano in the nursing home until two weeks ago, Paul said.
In a 2006 interview with the Star Tribune, Peterson, then 85, seemed indefatigable. “My age doesn’t change,” she said. “I started [playing piano] when I was 3 and I just kept going. I feel very young.”
Born in Minneapolis, Jeanne Arland began demonstrating piano sheet music at Dayton’s at age 15 and quickly graduated to gigs in ballrooms and nightclubs, doing schoolwork between sets. She was the featured vocalist on WCCO Radio for more than two decades, with her husband, Willie, playing piano in the station’s orchestra. After he died of cancer in 1969, she took over his gig as organist at Twins games at Met Stadium.
In 1958, she was the featured vocalist in an all-Gershwin program at Met Stadium with the Minneapolis Symphony, under the direction of the great jazz conductor Paul Whiteman, which she considered a career highlight. The redoubtable jazz pianist Marian McPartland encouraged Jeanne to move to New York to make it big but she opted to stay in Minnesota and raise her family.
The singing pianist played organ for Old Log Theater’s children’s shows, performed in nightclubs, concert halls and trade shows, and, in 1988, toured the Soviet Union with Women Who Cook, an all-star Twin Cities female band whose members were young enough to be her children.
Her own children are all professional musicians — singer Linda, bassist Billy (he’s played with Steve Miller Band, Bob Dylan, Ben Sidran, Leo Kottke), singer Patty, keyboardist Ricky (Bonnie Raitt, David Sanborn, Stevie Nicks) and multi-instrumenatlist singer Paul (the Time, the Family, Donny Osmond, Kenny Loggins, Oleta Adams, fDeluxe). And, for the past two decades, the Petersons did annual Christmas concerts together in various Twin Cities venues.
Jeanne’s house in Richfield has always been a hangout for her children and grandchildren — whether it was the swimming pool or band rehearsal in the basement.
Peterson released and recorded six albums, most recently “88 Grand” in 2009. Last fall, she began work on another recording project with Grammy-winning producer/engineer Bruce Swedien, with whom she’d first recorded in the late 1950s.
She received many awards, including the Arts Midwest Jazz Masters prize in 1998, and was named to more than one Minnesota music hall of fame.
“She lived an incredible life and left a great legacy,” said her grandson, saxophonist/keyboardist/singer Jason Peterson DeLaire, who tours in Michael Bolton’s band. “From her, we learned about music and life and love.”
And work ethic.
On Sunday night, four hours after his mom passed, Paul Peterson sat in on an encore, as promised, with reclusive soul star D’Angelo at First Avenue. “It was tough to go play tonight,” he said afterward, “but Mom would have kicked my butt if I didn’t play. It was part of the healing process.”
Peterson is survived by her five children, 13 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. Funeral services are pending.