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.