Michel Petrucciani: The Tragically Brief Life of a French Jazz Legend

Pianist Michel Petrucciani was one of the greatest jazz musicians to emerge from France. His tragically short life was crammed full of accolades, albums and worldwide touring, as we’ll discover in this article…

From his early days on the Côte d’Azur learning to play piano, turning professional at the age of just thirteen and relocating to Paris, California and New York, Petrucciani led a full and productive musical life.

These achievements are made even more remarkable when one considers the fragility of his health and the major obstacles he had to overcome.

Born in 1962 Montpellier into a musical Italo-French family, Petrucciani was quickly diagnosed with the genetic condition osteogenesis imperfecta – otherwise known as brittle bone disease.

With bones prone to breaking – something which happened more than 100 times before he reached his teens – the disease was responsible for his short stature.

But whilst he was featured by the Guinness Book of Records as the shortest professional pianist in history at 91cm, it also led to multiple less visible problems which ultimately resulted in his death aged 36.

However, Petrucciani never allowed his disabilities to prevent him from pursuing his dreams and living life to the fullest.

Studying the jazz greats

The young Michel Petrucciani was captivated when he saw Duke Ellington on television and immediately declared an interest in playing the piano.

His father bought him a toy piano, which Michel promptly destroyed, preferring a real one, which he duly received.

From here on, Michel progressed rapidly.

His musical ear had already been honed by listening to music that played around the house, and he was apparently able to hum solos by guitarist Wes Montgomery by the time he began to speak.

Lessons from the age of four or five encouraged Michel’s love of the piano and playing music even further.

Practicing diligently, Petrucciani once commented that his condition was a blessing as he did not have the distractions that other youngsters had, such as playing sports and other activities, which enabled him to focus all his energies on music.

By the age of ten, he had fallen under the spell of pianist Bill Evans, and this influence would remain with him throughout his playing career. Other notable influences were Keith Jarrett and Oscar Peterson, the former for his lyrical playing and the latter for his virtuoso approach to the keyboard.

Influences are all part of the learning process, and Michel Petrucciani did what all great jazz musicians do: assimilating his favourite parts of each into his own unique style and voice.

Michel Petrucciani in Paris

By the age of thirteen, Michel Petrucciani had played his first professional engagements. His health, however, was always a concern. His short stature meant that he could not reach the piano pedals and required customised aids to operate them.

Feeling frustrated with the overprotective actions of his father, who wanted him to live at home and play piano in his band, and with a desire to advance his career, Petrucciani moved to Paris with his friend and drummer, Aldo Romano.

The move, while beneficial to his progress as a musician, also put pressure on his friendship with Romano, who the pianist also felt was overprotective. Determined to have some excitement in his life, he allegedly dabbled in drugs and once quoted as saying: “I was lucky and got out safe.”

A Legend Is Born

Around this time, in 1977, Petrucciani also began playing regularly with acclaimed American drummer Kenny Clarke.

The following year, fate saw him called last minute to perform with trumpeter Clark Terry, who was missing a pianist.

The band, the audience and the critics at Cliousclat Jazz Festival were wowed by his virtuosity and the legend of Michel Petrucciani was well on its way.

It marked the beginning of a close relationship with record label Owl and its owner Jean-Jacques Pussiau.

Digging into that part of the Michel Petrucciani discography is a great entry to his development, not least a stunning live album with alto saxophonist Lee Konitz called Toot Suite.

Alongside some delicate originals is a 16 minute mammoth version of classic jazz ballad Round Midnight.

Michel Petrucciani hits America

Tiring of Paris and his collaboration with the record label Owl for whom he recorded prolifically, Petrucciani made the decision to move to California sometime around 1982.

It was a brave move, but one that would launch his international career and continue his rise to stardom.

Once again, his clear talent and virtuosity saw him grab the attention of the older generation of jazz greats, this time in the form of Charles Lloyd. The saxophonist was moved to come out of retirement to tour with the pianist; a set of dates that culminated in their appearance at the 1982 Montreux Jazz Festival, which was recorded and released as an album.

Later, following his permanent move to the US in 1984, the pair also appeared at the Town Hall in New York City. The historic concert on February 22, 1985 was filmed and released as “One Night with Blue Note.”

Along with bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Jack DeJohnette, they can be seen and heard in the film playing a composition entitled “Tone Poem,” and on Volume Four of the subsequent CD/LP release, the quartet played five Charles Lloyd compositions: “The Blessing,” “Tone Poem,” “Lady Day,” “El Encanto,” and “How Long.”

It was this same year that Petrucciani began recording for Blue Note, releasing seven albums for the label, including the remarkable “Power of Three” with saxophonist Wayne Shorter and guitarist Jim Hall.

“A pianist is not complete until…”

Having recorded as part of a trio or larger group for most of his career to date, he recorded a solo piano album, “Promenade With Duke“, for Blue Note in 1992.

The following year, Michel Petrucciani decided to abandon playing with his usual trio and focus exclusively on solo piano performances, declaring that he didn’t think a pianist is complete until capable of playing by themselves.

From 1993 until his death, solo piano concerts would be a frequent format in Petrucciani’s concert schedule.

As the 1990s progressed, his health declined.

Although he continued a punishing schedule of live performances, recording, and interviews – including more than 150 gigs in his penultimate year – Michel Petrucciani passed away shortly after his 36th birthday in 1999.

Despite missing the start of the 21st Century by a matter of days, we can safely say that Michel Petrucciani was a true genius of modern-era jazz, and yet another musician who bridged the gap between the forefathers or jazz and the scene we know today.

Looking for more? We, of course, included Michel in our guide to Jazz in France, as well as our pick of some of essential listening from the European Jazz scene.

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