Michel Petrucciani was born in Orange, France, on the 28th December, 1962. His father, Antoine (Tony), was a musician, and his mother, Anne (Anna) Vivienne, was a reticent figure, quietly dedicated to domestic duty. Unlike his two older brothers, Michel was not allowed the freedom normally permitted young boys. Born with osteogenesis imperfecta, commonly known as ‘brittle bone disease’, Tony was adamant Michel grow up isolated within the walls of the family home. The house was a hub of music and musicians, but, hidden away in his bedroom, Michel grew up hearing music second-hand through the floorboards and from behind the door. He was utterly absorbed by all he heard and, at just four years old, he used two drumsticks to demonstrate to his father that he could play all he had secretly listened to.
Though Tony’s restriction of Michel’s interaction with his peers and adults was somewhat harsh, he can certainly be credited with cultivating his son’s determination to succeed as a musician. Speaking in praise of his rigid upbringing, Michel later said he was “grateful…that he was so severe and demanding with me. He taught me everything. With him I discovered all the great jazzmen, I learnt how to feel and live the music intensely and that being artist is a real job that demand a lot of work and energy….If I got where I am it is because I always wanted to do what my father expected of me.”
Freedom and friendships
Michel’s relationships proved key to unlocking his potential. In 1971, Tony opened a music shop in Montelimar, a renowned centre for jazz. Here, Denis Tourrenc (an amateur pianist and jazz enthusiast) determined to be taught by the reclusive young virtuoso that Michel had now become. Typically cagey about his son, Tony took a lot of persuading to allow Denis access. Having eventually acquiesced (following repeated pleas and a bottle of cognac), Denis and Michel struck up a friendship that granted Michel his first taste of freedom. As son-in-law of the great painter, Nicolas de Staël, Denis not only took Michel beyond his own four walls, he broadened his intellectual parameters by immersing him in the rich world of visual culture and literature. Michel later said that “If poetry and painting could have a child, It would be music”. It was also Denis who first introduced Michel to John Coltrane. He would idolise Coltrane for the rest of his life.
Whilst the burgeoning jazz scene was full of American musicians in the late 70s, early 80s, it was his association with Aldo Romano that, as Michel put it, opened the road to success. In 1981, he recorded his first album, Flash. Without having ever heard him play, Aldo agreed to drum on it. In 1981, Aldo introduced Michel to the Jazz scene in Paris. This was by no means a seamless introduction. Inherently shy, Michel found the circle both hostile and exclusive. His friendship with Aldo, however, helped to shape his style; both held to traditional standards: prioritising melody over harmony, structure over “free jazz”. This came to characterise Michel’s composition and play across his career. It was also with Aldo, and under the influence of Oscar Peterson, that Michel came to appreciate the value of silence. Michel would later proclaim that, “silence is the most beautiful music”.
In 1982 Michel needed a change of scene. Aldo tells of how he no longer felt “ free with me. He needed to escape. He needed to go very far, as far as he could go, and that was California.” This was the promised land for jazz, and a turning point in Michel’s career. Whilst Paris had been hostile, it was in America that Michel learned to ask questions, and here he got answers. It was also here that Michel’s extraordinary playing compelled the retired saxophonist, Charles Lloyd, to return to music. Lloyd speaks of hearing Michel play as though it were a moment of spiritual conversion: “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.” In Charles Lloyd’s band, Michel also played alongside of Roberto Miranda, Alex Cline, and Tox Drohar for four years. In 1993, now established on the jazz scene in the US, he left (much to Lloyd’s chagrin), to focus on his solo career.
“I really believe a pianist is not complete until he’s capable of playing by himself,” Michel later reflected. Having always performed with his eyes wide open, playing alone allowed him to connect evermore directly with the audience. As a solo artist, Michel reached his zenith.
In 1985, he became the first non-American to sign with Blue Note records. He played two consecutive nights opening for Miles Davis. On the second evening, Miles insisted on playing first, essentially opening for Michel – arguably an act of utmost respect. In 1997, Michel played for the pope in front of an audience of 400,000. He was a prolific, seemingly tireless performer. In consecutive years, he would play well over a hundred concerts per annum, despite regularly being blighted by broken bones. On one occasion, he broke his finger, collarbone and wrist. He was in such pain that he had to be fed, and yet, at the same time, he still played his concerts. In response to doctors advising him not to play for a while, he said simply, “If you stop me from playing I will die”.
In 1995, he recorded Michel plays Petrucciani. Many regard this as a turning point in his music, celebrating it as his most lyrical and mature output to date. Records like this earned Michel the reputation of being (as the New York Times put it), “one of the great romantics of the jazz piano”.
He will endure
Michel’s final project was to establish ‘The International Jazz School’. “It is my life purpose”, he explained in a letter to Le Figaro, “to pass on the little knowledge I have to others. It is my dream not to die with all my knowledge…I want to create a school to think, live and create Jazz music.” Michel did not live to see his dream realised. Having performed for the pope a second time, on 18th December 1998, he travelled to New York to join his family for Christmas, whereupon he fell ill and rapidly declined. He died in hospital aged just thirty six, on 6th January 1999. At his funeral his father, Tony, played “A child is born” on the guitar.
The way Michel lived is testament to his knowledge that, for him, life would likely be particularly short. Writing to Manhu Roche in 1983, Michel urged his childhood friend to make the most of his drumming talent. “Don’t fall asleep, time goes so fast!”, he instructs. “What I mean is that now, between you, the drum, the music and the time that passes, well, the one winning is time. Time is passing you by and you need to focus on going faster than time.”
Michel’s life was greatly enriched by his romantic relationships. He was married for four years to Erlinda Montano, who was the inspiration for and dedicant of various compositions and performances. Following their divorce, he fell in love with Marie-Laure [SURNAME], whose son, Rachid, he undertook to raise. They had another son, Alexandre, in 1990. Alexandre was born with the same condition as Michel. In 1992, he married for a second time, this time to fellow pianist, Gilda Butta. The last few days of his life were spent with Marie-Laure, Alexandre, Rachid, and his final love, Isabelle Maille.
It would be easy to read Michel’s untimely death as deeply tragic, but for his son, Alexandre, Michel’s story is one of “courage and hope…Whether you are born tall, small, handsome or ugly, anything can be acquired by commitment and work. Michel was the perfect example. That is the most important thing I would like people to remember, even more than the beauty and intensity of his music.” The jazz community he left behind likewise shares this sentiment. Of Michel’s extraordinary ability to not only endure, but to excel under the most trying of physical circumstances, long-time playing companion, Wayne Shorter, said: “I never heard Michel complain about anything…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.”
Michel Petrucciani would not have called himself a prodigy. On this subject, he said, “I am not gifted, I gave a lot of time to my instrument”. Whilst his music, career, and legacy clearly speak to a remarkable talent, Michel’s story is also one of great tenacity and endurance.