Peterson was born in Montreal, Quebec, to immigrants from the West
Indies; his father worked as a porter for Canadian Pacific Railway.
Peterson grew up in the neighbourhood of Little Burgundy in Montreal. It
was in this predominantly black neighborhood that he encountered the jazz
culture. At the age of five, Peterson began honing his skills on trumpet
and piano, but a bout of tuberculosis when he was seven prevented him
from playing the trumpet again, so he directed all his attention to the piano.
His father, Daniel Peterson, an amateur trumpeter and pianist, was one of
his first music teachers, and his sister Daisy taught him classical piano.
Peterson was persistent at practising scales and classical études.
As a child, Peterson studied with Hungarian-born pianist Paul de Marky, a
student of István Thomán, who was himself a pupil of Franz Liszt, so his
early training was predominantly based on classical piano. But he was
captivated by traditional jazz and boogie-woogie and learned several ragtime
pieces. He was called “the Brown Bomber of the Boogie-Woogie”.
At the age of nine Peterson played piano with a degree of control that
impressed professional musicians. For many years his piano studies
included four to six hours of daily practice. Only in his later years did he
decrease his practice to one or two hours daily. In 1940, at fourteen years of
age, he won the national music competition organized by the Canadian
Broadcasting Corporation. After that victory, he dropped out of the High
School of Montreal, where he played in a band with Maynard Ferguson.
He became a professional pianist, starring in a weekly radio show and
playing at hotels and music halls. In his teens he was a member of the
Johnny Holmes Orchestra. From 1945 to 1949 he worked in a trio and
recorded for Victor Records. He gravitated toward boogie-woogie and
swing with a particular fondness for Nat King Cole and Teddy Wilson.
By the time he was in his 20s, he had developed a reputation as a technically
brilliant and melodically inventive pianist.