Daisy Peterson Sweeney: A legacy of kindness

[Vues sur la Bourgogne, Vol 7, no 4 – Winter 2018/2019]

Since October, one of Little Burgundy’s best-known and most loved faces is back in the neighbourhood. Daisy Peterson Sweeney smiles up from her piano in the new mural by Kevin Ledo at St-Jacques and St-Martin, one block over from where her legendary brother, Oscar Peterson, is immortalized in another mural.

“I like it because it caught her essence,” her daughter Judith Sweeney says. “It’s a face you want to know. She just had a kindness and humanity about her.”

Many who grew up in Little Burgundy would agree. Sweeney was a neighbourhood legend in her own right, with a legacy distinct from that of her famous brother.

Born in 1920, Sweeney was one of five children. Their father worked as a porter for the Canadian Pacific Railway and insisted that all of them learn a musical instrument. Before long, Sweeney was teaching her younger brother Oscar to play the piano. She found work as a maid and as a riveter in an airplane factory during the Second World War, and used the savings from her wages of five dollars a week to put herself through music school at McGill.

Back home in Little Burgundy, Sweeney was already making a name for herself as a music instructor, teaching piano to kids in the neighbourhood. Jazz heroes Oscar Peterson and Oliver Jones both learned from her before going on to find global success. Ironically, Sweeney herself always preferred teaching and being an accompanist to solo performances – despite her famous jazz connections, she was always more comfortable out of the limelight.

Over the years, Sweeney taught generations of local youngsters, including at the Negro Community Centre.

“She was old-school strict, but everybody knew she was fair. She was good for a lot of people’s self-esteem and their doubts,” says daughter Judith.

Building confidence in others was central to who Sweeney was. Judith recalls her mother bringing music students as young as five to McGill’s music school, to help them not be intimidated about going there to study one day. When teaching large groups of students, Sweeney would always make time at the end for everyone to sit and talk over cookies and juice.

“People looked forward to that, and it gave them confidence. It was just a relaxed atmosphere.”

Finding ways for youth in Little Burgundy to unite through music was, in many ways, a reflection of Sweeney’s desire to do right by her community, especially for young people.

“She didn’t want to see any child at risk, at all. If she could do something [to help], then she would do it.”

Indeed, it was Sweeney who first had the idea to start a youth choir in Little Burgundy. In 1974, she and Trevor Payne co-founded the Black Community Youth Choir, which by 1982 was known as the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir.

Sweeney would continue to play piano into her later years, stopping only when her health began to decline. She passed away in August 2017. According to Judith, her mother’s legacy is one of kindness.

“She just liked to help people. What she put out there, it comes back,”

Talks with the City are ongoing on how to commemorate her life by renaming a park or a street in her honour.

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