Robi Botos was a horrible piano student.
He would return to his classical music lessons each week playing his piece completely different from the week before.
He was improvising.
“That’s great,” his teacher told him.
“You’ve really made this piece your own, but that’s not what you’re here for.”
Years later, Botos is a world-renowned jazz pianist who has won numerous awards and has opened for jazz legends such as Oscar Peterson.
This Sunday, Botos is coming to Whitehorse to play some solo piano at Jazz on the Wing.
“I have in mind that I’ll play some originals and some standards,” he said over the phone from his Toronto home.
But he won’t be too prepared and will likely just let the show unfold on it’s own.
“Each venue and each piano gives me something else and that’s the beauty of jazz, that you can actually play in the moment,” he said.
“I might just do something new that I’ve never done before, which is usually the case.”
Botos grew up in Hungary surrounded by music.
He and both of his brothers inherited a love for it from their father, who still works in Budapest as a percussionist.
This love for music could also be attributed to Botos’ Roma heritage.
“All of our relatives, every family in our family tree, has musicians,” he said in his lingering Hungarian accent.
“So it wasn’t hard to know music at a very early age.”
Botos, who now plays and composes in a variety of musical styles, attributes his eclectic musical taste to his father.
“There are a lot of musicians who only play swing, or only play modern jazz, and that’s jazz for them and it’s all they do,” he said.
“But my father listened to everything at home.”
Because of his father and older brothers, Botos grew up listening to an eclectic musical montage — classical, different styles of jazz, R&B, funk, pop and rock.
“I think it’s important that you have a lot of things in you and know a lot of styles of music,” he said.
“All the jazz greats, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Quincy Jones, they all played different styles, so I think that’s a great thing.”
Originally, Botos wanted to play drums like his father and older brother.
However, his father thought that it would be good to have a few different instruments around the house and bought his son a piano.
“I just started to play, basically,” he said.
“I sat down; my father showed me the scales and a few things, and then he put me into music school for classical.”
Despite his father’s efforts to train his son classically, Botos took to jazz right away.
Canadian jazz legend Oscar Peterson was a huge influence on him.
The first jazz album that Botos ever listened to featured Peterson.
“That was just … amazing,” he said.
“I couldn’t talk after that, I was shocked.”
The same mute shock plagued Botos years later, when he met his hero in person.
After winning first and the public prize at the International Montreux Jazz Festival’s solo piano competition, Botos was given the opportunity to open for Peterson at the prestigious Stravinsky hall.
Just before the concert, as he was leaving his Montreux hotel, Botos spotted Peterson walking with his wife Kelly on the opposite side of the street.
“Basically, I got shocked,” said Botos.
“I started to walk up to him and turned around; I just kept thinking, what am I going to say?”
Before he could say anything, the couple noticed the struggling young man and turned around to say hello.
Flustered, Botos introduced himself and explained that he would be opening for Peterson and what an honour it was for him.
Peterson was very friendly, said Botos
“He started talking to me like I’m Oscar Peterson and he’s Robi Botos, you know, that’s the type of person he was.”
“Oh, that’s great,” said Peterson to his fan. “I’m looking forward to hearing you.”
“That was just a dream, that whole couple of days being there opening up for him with the same audience on the same stage,” said Botos.
“It was the best thing in my life, I don’t know if I’m ever going to get that kind of honour again.”
Oscar Peterson passed away last December at the age of 82.
“For any piano player in the world there’s no question about who everyone thinks is the best,” said Botos.
“He had something above talent.”
In 1998, Botos immigrated to Canada in order to escape the discrimination of being a “Gypsy” in Hungary.
For example, he tried not to take the bus at night for fear of meeting skinhead groups.
“There’s always been racism against Gypsies,” said Botos.
“Hungry has never been stranger-friendly.”
But as a rising star in the jazz community, Botos also left home looking for more possibilities for his music.
“Plus, I love Canada,” he said.
“It’s great. You can really be who you want here and I really like that.”
Botos is eager to explore more of his adopted country, including Whitehorse.
“I have a really good feeling about this because it’s a beautiful piano and beautiful people,” he said.
“I had friends who have played there and they told me good things, so I’m looking forward to it.”
Botos will be playing at the Yukon Arts Centre this Sunday at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets are $22 each and available at the Yukon Arts Centre box office and Arts Underground.