Art and Culture

The amazing story of legendary Jazz pianist Michel Petrucciani

Michel Petrucciani is undoubtedly one of the most accomplished jazz pianists of his generation, despite being afflicted from birth with osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic disease that causes brittle bones and, in his case, short stature.

(image by Flickr user Jason Hickey)

Born in Orange, Vaucluse, France in 1962 Petrucciani wanted to become a pianist from an early age. He came from a musical family, so he started training in classical piano at the age of four and was making music with his family by the age of nine. He was influenced by musician Bill Evans, whom he began listening to at around the age of ten. When he was 13, Petrucciani gave his first professional concert, and he was so fragile at the time that he had to be carried to and from the piano.

At the age of fifteen, Petrucciani made it to Paris. During his time there he played in a trio with Kenny Clark, and rose to stardom. After his stint in Paris, he returned to his family only for a brief visit. He began his professional life living with the drummer Aldo Romano. But eventually Petrucciani desired independence from Romano too.

Michel ended up in California in 1982, where he visited the retired saxophonist Charles Lloyd. Lloyd had stopped playing when people began to view his sidemen as more fashionable than he himself was. After hearing Petrucciani play, the saxophonist was so inspired that he agreed to tour with Michel. Lloyd said to Michel, “I was here not planning to play again. You triggered me. I heard this beauty in you and I said, ‘well I have to take you ’round the world cause there’s something so beautiful, it was like providence calling.” Petrucciani and Lloyd’s tour of the West Coast was a huge success, and they continued their internationally. On February 22, 1985, with Petrucciani cradled in his arms, Lloyd walked onto the stage at Town Hall in New York City and sat him on his piano stool for what would be a historic evening in jazz history: the filming of One Night with Blue Note. The film’s director John Charles Jopson would later recall in the reissued liner notes that the moment moved him to tears.

Petrucciani and Lloyd’s performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival was made into an album, and in 1982 they won the 1982 Prix d’Excellence. But Petrucciani expressed mostly disdain and frustration at the awards he felt were being heaped upon him, believing that he was receiving so many at least in part because people believed he was going to die young.

Petrucciani moved to New York City 1984 and spent the rest of his life there. This was one of the most wildly productive periods of his career. He recorded with Wayne Shorter and Jim Hall, producing the trio album Power of Three. In 1986 Petrucciani recorded a live album with Wayne Shorter and Jim Hall. He also played with diverse figures in the US jazz scene including Dizzy Gillespie.

But he also made a priority of recording solo piano. Michel said: “I really believe a pianist is not complete until he’s capable of playing by himself. I started doing solo concerts in February 1993, when I asked my agent to cancel my trio dates for a year in order to play nothing but solo recitals… I had a wonderful time playing alone, and discovering the piano and really studying every night. I felt like I was learning so much about the instrument and about communicating directly with an audience. So it was an incredible experience. I really loved doing that, and afterwards getting on stage with a group again and playing with other people was a piece of cake!”

On the personal side, he had five significant relationships: Erlinda Montano (marriage), Eugenia Morrison, Marie-Laure Roperch, the Italian pianist Gilda Buttà (the marriage lasted three months and ended in divorce) and Isabelle Mailé (with whom he shares his grave). With Marie Laure he fathered a son, Alexandre, who inherited his condition. He also had a stepson named Rachid Roperch.

In 1994, he was granted a Légion d’honneur in Paris.

In the late 1990s, Petrucciani’s lifestyle became increasingly taxing. Musically, he was moving at a frenetic pace. He was performing over one hundred times per year, and in 1998, the year before he died, he performed one hundred and forty times. His social life was also becoming more costly—he began to drink more heavily and experiment with cocaine. He became too weak to use crutches and had to resort to a wheelchair. Petrucciani’s final manager said, “He was working too much—not only recording and doing concerts, but he was always on television, and he was always doing interviews. He got himself overworked, and you could see it. He pushed too much.”

Michel Petrucciani died in New York City in 1999 just after his 36th birthday from a pulmonary infection. He was interred in Le Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

(image by Flickr user lee.chihwei)

On February 12, 2009, the French music channel Mezzo broadcast a special event paying homage to Petrucciani and the ten year anniversary of his death.

Osteogenesis imperfecta seemed to contribute greatly both to Michel Petrucciani’s personality and his playing style. By his own account, Petrucciani was in almost constant physical pain of some kind throughout his short life. Yet, he was known for a cheerful, playful, even cavalier personality. He said, “I love humor, I love to laugh, I love jokes, I love silliness, I love that, I think it’s great, I think laughter is worth a whole lot of medicine.”

Though he often exhibited arrogance, cockiness, and even womanizing tendencies in his adolescent years, the defining characteristic of Petrucciani was ultimately his great and unlikely confidence. Michael Zwerin recalled one example: “We were sitting there wondering what to play. It was kind of hot. And Michel said, ‘anybody know “Giant Steps?” Neither Louis nor I wanted to admit we didn’t really know it. So there was this great silence. And Michel said, “Well, I do!” and he pounded into a solo version of it at a very fast clip, and it was really amazing. That to me is Michel—‘Well, I do!’ Man, a confidence you wouldn’t believe.”

Wayne Shorter summed up Michel Petrucciani’s essential character and style in this quote:

“There’s a lot of people walking around, full-grown and so-called normal—they have everything that they were born with at the right leg length, arm length, and stuff like that. They’re symmetrical in every way, but they live their lives like they are armless, legless, brainless, and they live their life with blame. I never heard Michel complain about anything. Michel didn’t look in the mirror and complain about what he saw. Michel was a great musician—a great musician—and great, ultimately, because he was a great human being because he had the ability to feel and give to others of that feeling, and he gave to others through his music.”

Sources: Wikipedia, michelpetrucciani.com

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