O'Brien, (‘Professor’) Peter (1939–2003), musician, was born 28 April 1939 at the Hatch Street nursing home, Dublin, son of John (‘Jack’) O’Brien, chartered quantity surveyor, of Trenwith, Knocksinna Road, Stillorgan, Co. Dublin, with offices at 8 South Leinster Street, Dublin city, and his wife (Marnie) Joyce (née Winder). When he was about eight years old, the family moved to Killiney Park House, Killiney, Co. Dublin. He was reared in well‐to‐do circumstances, in a household steeped in music and other arts. His father was a talented amateur violinist, whose friends included the tenor John McCormack (qv) and writer Brian O’Nolan (qv). Peter’s musical gifts were evident from early childhood. With his father’s encouragement, he studied for seven years at the Royal Irish Academy of Music (RIAM) (1949–56), where he graduated with a licentiate, after winning many piano competitions, and the gold medal for composition.
While studying French in Paris in the mid 1950s, he first heard recordings of the American jazz pianist Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller (1904–43), and became fervently devoted to the Harlem stride style of jazz piano, of which Waller had been a leading exponent. Captivated by the joyousness and freedom of expression that jazz embodied, O’Brien steered his career in directions other than that of his classical training. A prominent figure in Ireland’s small but zealous jazz scene, he was one of the country’s leading jazz pianists, and one of the foremost European practitioners of Harlem stride. His nickname, ‘Professor’, was derived from the unofficial title bestowed on masters of stride piano, especially in New Orleans. Over the years O’Brien – who worked in advertising before launching his musical career full‐time in the early 1980s – played with many of Ireland’s other leading jazz musicians, including saxophonists Richie Buckley, Len McCarthy, Paddy Cole, and Rock Fox (Chas Meredith), trumpeter Paul ‘Satchmo’ Sweeney, double bassist Dave Fleming, drummer John Wadham (qv), and fellow pianists Myles Drennan and Colm ‘Stride’ O’Brien. He regularly accompanied international jazz artists touring Ireland, such as Bud Freeman, Wild Bill Davison, Warren Vaché, Harry Allen, and Acker Bilk; in an acclaimed 1991 concert, he played stride and ragtime piano alongside the blues and boogie‐woogie piano of Stan Greig. During a period based in London (1987–92), he shared top billing at the 100 Club with Stephane Grappelli, George Melly, and Humphrey Lyttelton. He performed in such Dublin venues as the Harcourt Hotel, Renard’s, and Whelan’s, and at jazz festivals in Ireland and abroad.
O’Brien’s musical interests not only embraced various traditional jazz styles, but also included classical (with a special love for Mozart), blues, cabaret, Irish traditional, and Irish, Irish‐American, and international popular music. Because of this eclecticism, along with his superb technique, and uncanny affinity with singers and sidemen, he was constantly in demand as a band member and accompanist. He worked as musical director, composer, and/or performer in dramatic productions at the Abbey and other Dublin theatres. He was musical director and pianist in the hit series of six satiric revues featuring actors Des Keogh and Rosaleen Linehan (1976–85), and in the duo’s 2000 reunion, ‘Des and Rosie ride again’. He frequently accompanied singer Agnes Bernelle (qv) in her shows of German cabaret songs, touring with her in Ireland, Britain, and Europe, and performed on two of her recorded albums: Bernelle on Brecht and… (1977) (produced by Philip Chevron, later of The Pogues), and Mother the wardrobe is full of infantrymen (1990). After performing with singer Mary Coughlan on her album Long honeymoon (recorded c. 1997, but not released till 2001), he encouraged her interest in jazz singing, and gigged with her as solo accompanist or with double bass. For two years they toured together internationally, as a duo and with a varying number of other musicians, in ‘Lady sings the blues’, a themed show of songs associated with Billie Holiday, for which O’Brien did the musical arrangements; the show was recorded as a live double album, Mary Coughlan sings Billie Holiday (2000). O’Brien also played on several tracks of Coughlan’s album Red blues (2002). He worked with singer Susie Kennedy on shows based on the songs of Bessie Smith and Sophie Tucker, and on a show devoted to the music of Fats Waller, ‘Forever Fats’ (2003). He also performed with singers as diverse as Ronnie Drew (1934–2008), soprano Cara O’Sullivan, and tenor Emmanuel Lawler.
O’Brien often performed on Irish radio and television, and for a period made up to a dozen appearances per year at the National Concert Hall (NCH), Dublin. He had an unfailing knack for devising a theme for a show, appropriate to the performers, venue, and occasion, and for attending to the myriad organisational details. He appeared briefly in the Neil Jordan film Michael Collins (1996) with tenor Frank Patterson (qv) as a restaurant pianist and singer performing O’Brien’s own waltz‐time arrangement of ‘Macushla’. He played many times with the American jazz pianist Ralph Sutton (1922–2001), rated the greatest living practitioner of Harlem stride. The pair released a duo album, 2001: a stride odyssey (2001), recorded live in Dublin in June 2001, six months before Sutton’s death. O’Brien’s last album, Jazz piano of a Celtic soul (2003), consisting of solo piano performances recorded before live Dublin audiences in January–February 2003, was a treasury of his eclectic influences; the tracks included a Bach prelude, a nocturne by John Field (qv), and Mozart’s ‘Ronda a la turca’ [sic]; instrumental arrangements of ‘Macushla’ and ‘When Irish eyes are smiling’; a Fats Waller medley; and pieces by Bix Beiderbecke, George Gershwin, Oscar Peterson, and the Irish‐American ragtime composer Joseph Lamb.
Good‐humoured and self‐deprecating, remembered by Coughlan as ‘encouraging, talented, generous, and lovably eccentric’ (Coughlan, 246), O’Brien was held in great affection by the many artists and entertainers with whom he worked. With his first wife, Catherine, he had two sons and two daughters. He married secondly Theresa Dillon; they lived at Hazelwood, Killelan, Ballymurn, Co. Wexford. Diagnosed in May 2003 with terminal cancer of the pancreas, he continued to perform, and faced the illness with courage and serenity. A tribute concert at the NCH, featuring many of his leading collaborators, was introduced by broadcaster Gay Byrne (July 2003). O’Brien died 31 October 2003 at Ely Hospital, Wexford; the death certificate describes his occupation as ‘professor of music’.