To celebrate Black history month, this feature will highlight the achievements of one particularly talented Black woman; she truly put Montreal on the map as a jazz powerhouse. Daisy Peterson Sweeney was not only a great musician, but also a great teacher to some of the best artists from Montreal.
Sweeney was born on May 7th of 1920, to Canadian parents – her mother a housekeeper and her father a railroad worker – and was raised in Little Burgundy, an area mainly inhabited by Black residents. She grew up during a period of great difficulty for Black people in Canada. Segregation and racial restrictions were still commonplace, especially within the workplace and educational institutions.
She and her family attended the Union United Church, which was founded for this community as they were not allowed to attend all-white churches. This is where she acquired her affinity for music. Originally working as a housemaid to pay for her musical education at McGill University, when her employers found out she was pursuing a degree, they fired her. Daisy then turned to teaching piano to local students at Montreal’s Negro Community Centre.
While she started teaching her brother Oscar Peterson how to play, her skills as a teacher became well-known in the community and her students grew in number, ultimately reaching over a hundred. Quite a few of her pupils became largely famous in the Montreal sphere and some even acquired international fame, including Oliver Jones, Oscar Peterson, and Ken Skinner.
Her work furthermore allowed black artistry to be more widely accepted and normalized, within Montreal and abroad. In 1982, she co-founded the Montreal Black Community Youth Choir, now the world-renown Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir. It is known for its unique incorporation of Gregorian chants with traditional Zulu music and contemporary Jazz.
Her commitment to musical education and her impact on Montreal’s Black community has made her a beloved figure in the city’s history. Several tributes have been made to her recently, following her passing three years ago, by those close to her. While the city has gone back on their promise to rename the Union United Church’s residing street after her, she is not forgotten. A mural was painted on Saint-Martin Street, commemorating Daisy Peterson Sweeny and her work. Her legacy continues to live on in all aspects of Montreal’s musical scope and within the Black community she contributed so much to.
By Lynn Hamze