OTTAWA - Even Nelson Mandela deemed it an honour to meet this Canadian jazz legend.

There was one witness in the room when the great South African leader was introduced to Oscar Peterson -- and he was the man who made the introduction.

Jean Chretien reminisced Monday about the display of mutual admiration that unfolded when he invited Peterson to a 2001 ceremony honouring Mandela.

The former prime minister had been a fan and friend of Peterson's for decades, and says he had already offered to make him Ontario's lieutenant-governor after he took office in 1993.

He says Peterson declined for health reasons.

Years later Chretien brought Peterson to an Ottawa event where Mandela was named an honourary Canadian citizen.

During a private meeting, Chretien recalled, the revolutionary political figure glowed upon meeting the great pianist.

"It was very emotional,'' Chretien told The Canadian Press in an interview Monday. "They were both moved to meet each other. These were two men with humble beginnings who rose to very illustrious levels.''

In fact he says that when he first met Peterson in the 1960s, his level of international fame was without parallel among his countrymen.

"He was the most famous Canadian in the world,'' Chretien said.

In an illustration of Peterson's worldwide celebrity, the French government issued a statement reacting to his passing even before the Canadian government did.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said one of the bright lights of jazz had been extinguished. "He was a regular on the French stage, where the public adored his luminous style,'' Sarkozy said. "It is a great loss for us.''

The Canadian government also produced a written statement Monday saluting Peterson as a "jazz icon.''

"A great Canadian, Mr. Peterson was a beloved and respected citizen of the world who remained proud of his heritage,'' said Josee Verner, the heritage minister. "More than a talented musician, he was a composer and conductor.''

Canada's official Opposition leader expressed deep sadness at the loss.

"I share in the grief of the millions of fans with whom Oscar Peterson shared the tremendous gift of his remarkable music,'' said Liberal Leader Stephane Dion.