Jeanne Peterson was as fine a Minnesotan as our state ever needs to be remembered for. She was a master musician and plied her trade as a teenager in the smoky jazz clubs of Hennepin Avenue in the 1930s, her voice broadcast between the hog reports on WCCO Radio in the ’40s, performances at Met Stadium in the ’50s and ’60s (including a stint as the Minnesota Twins organist, taking over from her husband, Willard, who died on opening day in ’69) to gigs at Dayton’s Department Store, almost every cool downtown Twin Cities hotel with a piano, to the majestic Guthrie Theater and most points in between. Her career in a way is the musical version of Lost Twin Cities.
And true to form, she outlasted almost all of them.
In the wake of her recent passing, her name must now be added to the top of the list of legendary Minnesotans, including Charles Lindberg, Roy Wilkins, Hugo Black, Judy Garland, Hubert Humphrey, Nellie Stone Johnson and others. As an artist, her lifelong achievements nestle comfortably with Minnesota talents such as Meridel Le Sueur, Gordon Parks and Charles Schulz. As a musician first, but next, perhaps the greatest mother this state has ever produced.
Her five kids are all successful professional musicians. You’d think the laws of probability would determine that at least one of them would end up selling insurance, working construction, or maybe even practicing law if not having a brush with it. Nope, not the Peterson clan. Mostly self-taught and tutored by Jeanne, they have performed with a who’s who of American musicians: Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Leo Kottke, Steve Miller, The Time, Stevie Nicks, David Sanborn, Michael Bolton, the Osmond Family, and dozens more. Literally and figuratively, Jeanne’s legacy extends from Paul Whiteman to Prince and has covered the waterfront. Do I need to add that she raised these kids during their formative years as a single mother?
For Jeanne, raising a family and playing music were all in a day’s work. In 2007, a friend asked if I could find a piano player to perform at his wedding reception. I wanted to get him the best in town, so I called Jeanne. She thanked me for calling her, but said, “I’d love to, but I have three gigs that day.” She was 85 years old.
I saw her for the last time at her 90th birthday celebration at the Old Log Theater in 2012. She looked gorgeous, carried herself with the élan of Jackie Onassis, and was surrounded by her talented brood, and other musicians, all cousins celebrating the matriarch of this most talented of bloodlines. She swung like Count Basie and played solos that sounded like Dave Brubeck, punctuated by the raising of her right hand off the keyboard à la Liberace after she nailed whatever her heart and soul needed to say. It was a glorious and historic affair. In terms of a Minnesota icon being feted in their hometown, it was the closest thing I’ve witnessed to Bob Dylan’s five-night run at the Orpheum Theatre in 1992. And it was just as special, as was she.
Paul Metsa, of Minneapolis, is a musician and author.